DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter@gmail.com

A Very Special Polniaczek Thanksgiving
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 2

Thursday, November 24, 1983. Thanksgiving Day. Peekskill, New York.

Blair had awakened at five-thirty am. Jo will be home today! Jo will be home …

She threw on one of Jo's old shirts, pulled on a pair of jeans, thick socks, her riding boots. Bundling herself in Jo's aviator jacket she wrapped a scarf around her neck, pulled on her Russian fur cap.

It was cold and overcast outside. Blair walked along the bluff, her breath pooling in frosty little clouds. The Hudson River was slate grey, stippled with a light rain, swirling with fog.

Blair burrowed deep into Jo's jacket, hands shoved into the pockets. Blair loved this weather. The crisp air stung roses into her cheeks, made her feel awake and alive.

She's coming home tonight! She's coming home! Her heart sang …

The kitchen was fragrant with Mrs. Garrett's fresh coffee. Mrs. Garrett was putting the finishing touches on a pumpkin pie. Tootie and her mother sat at the butcher block table, talking quietly over coffee. Blair was glad to see that both Tootie and Pauline were smiling.

"Happy Thanksgiving!" Blair said, pouring herself a cup of coffee. "Anyone need a top up?"

Tootie raised her hand.

"None for me, thanks," said Pauline.

After taking a red-eye flight back to D.C. Tuesday night, Pauline had decided to take another red-eye back to New York on Wednesday night, arriving in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, renting a car in the city, driving up to Peekskill.

"Harrison and the boys will have an all-football Thanksgiving," Pauline had told Mrs. Garrett. "They can manage one Thanksgiving without me – I hope!"

Blair topped up Tootie's coffee. "What can I do to help?" she asked Mrs. Garrett.

"You can make us some of your famous oatmeal, Blair. I'm all cooked out right now; I don't think I have it in me to make breakfast."

"Blair Warner's famous oatmeal, coming up!" Blair said cheerfully.

"Make sure you have a stomach-pump standing by," Tootie stage-whispered to her mother.

Blair lightly flicked Tootie with a dish cloth.

"You can go without, if you'd rather, Tootie."

"Promise?"

Blair flicked her again.

"Does anyone know if Belmont called Natalie?" Blair asked, pouring oatmeal and milk into a large pot.

"He didn't," said Natalie, shuffling into the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers. Her eyes were puffy, her nose red. "Oh. Great. Blair's making oatmeal. Armageddon is complete!"

"Nobody has to eat the oatmeal," Blair huffed. Teasing is teasing, she thought, but, really! There's taking it too far!

"Face it Blair," said Tootie, "only Jo likes your oatmeal – and that's only cause she says it makes good wallpaper paste."

"Oh she does, does she?" Blair asked grimly. Miss Polniaczek and I are going to have a little chat about that remark after the holiday …

"Blair's oatmeal isn't that bad," said Mrs. Garrett. "At least she's helping. What are you two contributing?"

"I can make cocoa," offered Tootie.

"I guess I can slice some grapefruit," Nat said grumpily.

"What can I do?" asked Pauline.

"You can relax," said Mrs. Garrett. "And I'm about to join you. The older generation deserves an hour of peace and quiet before the youthful hordes descend! And speaking of youthful hordes …"

The sound of bare feet slapping on a hardwood floor drew closer. Alec burst into the kitchen in his pajamas – pants and shirt this time – his hair a mass of unkempt, corkscrewing curls.

"There's something in my room," he said, eyes a little wild.

"Like – a ghost?" asked Tootie, stirring the pan of cocoa.

"Like some type of woodland creature!"

"Bigfoot?" yawned Natalie, rummaging through the utensil drawer for the fruit knife.

"Some animal," said Alec. "I don't know what bloody kind!"

"Is it smaller than a squirrel?" asked Tootie. "Bigger than a bear?"

"I didn't take its measurements!"

"Well, you must have some idea what it is, Alec," Mrs. Garrett said reasonably.

Alec shuddered. "I don't particularly care for animals, not even domesticated ones. Why isn't Jo here? She wouldn't ask a peck of useless questions, she'd just charge in and take care of it."

Natalie lifted a large knife. "With this, probably."

"Exactly!" said Alec. "Natalie – will you evict it from my room?"

"What am I – 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle'? You let it into your room; you kick it out."

"But what if it has rabies?"

"How did it get into your room anyway?" asked Blair, stirring the oatmeal.

"I forgot to ask," Alec said drily.

"Probably just a possum," said Mrs. Garrett. "It's more afraid of you than you are of it."

"Not bloody likely!"

"Calm down, milord." Blair stirred the oatmeal harder. Hmm. This is a little thick. She poured more milk into the pot. "Here. Stir this, Alec. I'll go see what the big bad monster is."

"You?" Tootie and Natalie asked at the same time.

"Today," said Blair, handing the wooden spoon to Alec, "I feel like I can tackle anything."

Pauline was regarding Alec through narrowed eyes. "Is anyone going to introduce me to this young man? Since he appears to be living here?"

"Sure," said Tootie. "Mom, this is Alec. Alec, this is Mom."

"What kind of introduction is that?" Natalie demanded, slicing a grapefruit as viciously as if she had Belmont under her knife.

"It's the kind where it's six-thirty in the morning," said Tootie, "and I'm trying to concentrate on not burning the cocoa."

"Alec," said Natalie, "meet Justice Pauline Ramsey. Mrs. Ramsey, meet Alec Anviston, Lord Nethridge."

"Charmed," said Alec. "You'll forgive my not taking your hand right now, but if I burn the oatmeal, they'll be 'aitch' to pay with Mademoiselle Warner."

"Dorothy," said Pauline, "is there any particular reason you neglected to mention that Lord Nethridge is cohabiting with all of you?"

"Uh … I forgot?"

"There's nothing untoward about it," Alec said engagingly. "Look upon me as the girls do – like a big brother. I'm here to protect them from burglars, and things that go bump in the night."

"But not from woodland creatures," Pauline said coolly.

"Er, no."

"Is this your house?" Pauline asked, looking around the timbered kitchen. The whole place looks like the sort of property a British lord would buy – if he were settling in Peekskill.

Alec laughed. "Dear me, no. It's Blair's. And Jo's. They've taken me in while I'm wrestling with financial set-backs."

In one smooth motion, Pauline slid her dark-rimmed glasses out of her purse and put them on. She was already an intimidatingly handsome and serious woman; with the dark-rimmed glasses she looked like the awesome justice of the court that she was.

She stared hard at Alec through the lenses. Pauline instinctively distrusted anyone who wrestled with financial set-backs. Model citizens did not have financial set-backs.

"It's not his fault," said Tootie, correctly reading her mother's expression. "He has three castles to keep up, and no money to do it. Everything's ensnared –"

"Entailed," Alec corrected helpfully.

"Entailed, so he can't sell anything to raise any money."

Pauline sniffed. She had some familiarity with the aristocracy's intricate and sometimes inconvenient property laws. She removed her glasses, closed them with a snap and slipped them back into her purse.

"I see," she said simply.

"I'm harmless as a lamb" Alec said. "If you have any doubts about my status here, consider that in this enormous manor, Blair has assigned me what used to be the maid's room."

"She meant it ironically," said Natalie, "since you don't actually do any work around the house."

"I say, that's unfair. Who was at the A&P for hours yesterday? And the butcher shop?"

"Oh, the drudgery!" Natalie lifted her knife dramatically. "You must have felt like David Copperfield."

"I do now," said Alec, listlessly stirring the oatmeal.

"A little help here!" Blair shouted down the hall. "Someone bring me a laundry basket!"

"I'll get one!" yelled Tootie, heading for the cellar door.

"What is it?" Natalie called down the hall.

"Something furry!" shouted Blair.

"Well – that narrows it down!"

Alec shuddered. He stirred the oatmeal faster, as if trying to stir the image of a furry woodland creature out of his head.

"I don't know what this thing is named," called Blair. "I'm not a Girl Scout."

Tootie came flying up the stairs with an empty plastic laundry basket, darted down the hall.

"Dorothy Ramsey, you be careful!" Pauline said sternly.

"OK, Mom."

From the kitchen, they could hear Blair's voice, then Tootie's voice, muffled.

"What are they saying?" asked Natalie. She bit her nails. "I can't take this tension. What if it attacks them? What if it does have rabies?"

"What if you belt up?" Alec suggested irritably.

"What if I what? Is that an insult?"

"Shhh!"

"You should never insult a woman holding a knife," groused Nat.

"Natalie?" said Mrs. Garrett.

"Yes?"

"Please belt up, dear. That's British for 'put a sock in it'."

"Oh."

There was a loud thud from the end of the hallway, a squeak from Tootie and a squeal from Blair.

"Get it!" cried Tootie. "Over there! No, there!"

Several more loud thuds.

Mrs. Garrett put her hand to her mouth. Pauline stood up, as if ready to leap into action should her help be required. Alec stood frozen. Natalie grabbed his arm.

Two more thuds and then the sound of something shattering into a million pieces.

"God blind me, what the hell is going on in there?" Alec said through numb lips.

Pauline moved to the door, Mrs. Garrett on her heels, but they froze when they heard Blair and Tootie whooping.

"We did it!" cried Blair.

"We sure did!" cried Tootie.

Blair's boots thudded down the hall, accompanied by the flapping of Tootie's slippers.

Bursting into the kitchen, Blair headed right for the Princess wall phone, scooped up the receiver. She dialed "0". "Hello," she said, "can you please connect me with Peekskill Animal Control?"

Alec took Tootie by the shoulders in a protective, fraternal embrace. "Are you all right?" he demanded.

"Fine," Tootie said airily, as if she helped to subdue wild woodland creatures every day. "But your vase didn't make it. I hope it wasn't real Ming."

"Are you sure you're all right?" asked Pauline. She was not a physically demonstrative woman, but the care and concern were all there, in her voice.

"Yeah, Mom, couldn't be better."

"Well what is it?" trilled Mrs. Garrett. "Is it a squirrel? A possum?"

Tootie laughed. "Not exactly."

"Yes, this is Miss Blair Warner," Blair said into the phone. "We have a bit of a situation at River Rock. We need an animal removed. No. Yes, we have it wrapped in bedspread and trapped under a basket. But it looks pretty spry. No. Yes. It's –what did you call it, Tootie? Oh, yes – it's a chipmunk."

Natalie howled. "A chipmunk! A chipmunk? 'Extra! Extra!'" she said. "'Lord Anviston in Peril! Stalked by Chipmunk!'"

Alec groaned. "I'll never live this down."

Tootie grinned up at him. "Nope!"


Thanksgiving Day, 1983. The Bronx.

Everyone agreed Rose had outdone herself. It had all been modest – small turkey, small chicken, small ham, a bowl of canned cranberry sauce, Pillsbury rolls, instant mashed potatoes, McCormick's gravy, and a pumpkin pie – but delicious.

And Rose's food was supplemented by the dishes the guests brought, Mrs. Waldeman's latkes, a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs from Balducci and his sister, the famous Largo lasagna brought by Jo's Uncle Sal and her cousins Bud, Pauly and Terry.

Jo almost didn't recognize Terry. She had blossomed over the last few months, growing, it seemed, almost another foot taller. Her makeup was subtle, not packed on the way a lot of the neighborhood girls liked to wear it. Jo remembered how embarrassed tomboy Terry had been the first time she wore a dress to a family dinner. And now, here she was looking completely at ease in a pretty floral dress.

"You still datin Tony?" Jo asked her.

"You bet! We're gonna get married in a few years, when I graduate."

"Over my dead body," Uncle Sal had said mournfully from his seat in front of the television, where he was watching the game.

"Oh, Pop, come on," said Terry. "You know you like him."

"He's a bum" said Uncle Sal.

"Well, he ain't gonna stay a bum," said Terry. "I'm really gonna make somethin out of him."

"What about yourself?" Jo asked.

"Oh, I'm gonna make somethin outta myself, too, Jo, don't worry. I plan on going to BCC while Tony supports me in style."

"Supports you doin what, exactly?" asked Uncle Sal.

"What else, Pop? Workin for you."

"What?"

When Pauly went out onto the fire escape to sneak a cigarette, Jo followed him.

"So how's by you, Pauly?"

"Dunno," he said, shrugging. "Same shit, different day."

"Still working for your Pop?"

"Yup." He took a deep drag on his cigarette, offered it to Jo. Jo shook her head.

"Never knew how anyone could stand that crap," she said.

"How's your friend?" Pauly asked.

"She's good."

Pauly shook his head. "I sure wish I had me a friend like that. Go all over the frickin projects lookin for my friend's bike."

"She's a keeper," Jo agreed, trying to sound casual. It still brought a lump to her throat, how Blair had roped in Pauly and hunted all over the Bronx to buy Jo's Kawasaki back.

"Hell of a dancer, too," said Pauly. "Too bad a guy like me and a girl like her …" He blew out a big cloud of smoke.

"Why not a guy like you and a girl like her?" asked Jo. "I mean, not her specifically, cause, I, uh, think she's seein someone. But why not a girl like her?"

"Dunno. Works out good in the movies, but not so much in real life, huh? I mean, two people, total different sides of the tracks – how's that gonna last?" He blew a couple of smoke rings. "Don't listen to me today, Jo. Just a little down. Sheila dumped me yesterday."

"Jeez, Pauly, I'm sorry."

"Eh, she's Irish. I mean – like that coulda lasted, right?"

Charlie arrived late, but Jo didn't care. Charlie was never going to be the most reliable father on the planet, but she knew he was trying. Coming through with tuition, taking time off from work to watch one of her field hockey games – by Charlie standards, he was batting a hundred.

"There's my brilliant scholar!" crowed Charlie, capturing Jo in a massive hug that lifted her about a foot off the ground. "Jeez, you're beautiful, kid. You look more like your mother every day. But tall."

Jo was wearing a plain blue dress, one of her dresses from Eastland. She couldn't even imagine wearing any of her Bergdorf's or Saks glad rags here. In the first place, everyone would rib her. And then when the teasing died down, there'd be a gulf, suddenly. A simple outfit could do that, Jo had learned. For some reason people took it so damn seriously, whether you were wearing a flannel shirt or a mink coat.

"So, sit down here," said Charlie, absent-mindedly booting Sal off the couch, "and tell me all about your grades and your hockey games. Come on."

So, she had. It was the best hour of the whole celebration, in Jo's opinion. Maybe because they were so alike, something about Charlie brought out Jo's vivacity. Around her mother she was always a little restrained, a little careful. Around her father she could let her personality rip.

In a few minutes she had Charlie laughing, and then he had her laughing, and then more and more of the guests gathered around them and everybody was laughing.

Rose looked on from the kitchenette where she was heating up another batch of Pillsbury rolls.

They're so charming – both of them. So full of life. And I love 'em to death. And at the same time … I'm a little jealous. I'll never be that at ease. Not in a million years … I'm just boring old mom. Maybe if I started being unpredictable, unreliable … Would Jo value me more then? All those years he was in the joint, she wouldn't even talk about him. And now, it's like he hung the moon …

"Pop, you gotta come to Peekskill with me and Ma tonight," said Jo. "You've got to see this place. And you ain't seen Toot and Nat and Mrs. G in awhile."

"Or Blair," he said. "How's she doing, anyway?"

"Blair? She's, ah, doin great." God, it's so hard to look normal when someone mentions her name. "Blair" … that's all it takes, and my heart starts poundin …

"I'll bet the boys just flock around her like bees to honey."

Not if they wanna keep their teeth, thought Jo, one fist unconsciously curling.

"She's real popular," Jo agreed.

"Real nice girl," said Charlie. "Got a good heart. Hope she finds a boy that's worthy of her."

"If Blair takes after her mother, she'll find more than one," said Rose. She held out a plate of warm biscuits. "Anyone still hungry?"

Jo glared at her mother. If Blair takes after her mother … It was always there, just under the surface, Rose's compulsion to needle Blair, to criticize her.

"Rose, that's an ugly thing to say," Charlie said quietly.

"Blair's nothing like her mother," Jo said coldly. "Trust me."

"And what if she were?" asked Charlie, still staring at Rose. "Monica Warner's been nothing but pleasant to this family."

"Ha!" Rose made her little high-pitched, slightly hysterical laugh. "Always the defender of beautiful women – aren't you Charlie?"

"Including you," he told Rose, smiling. Rose blushed.

It came to Jo, forcefully, that her parents had once been young, that there had been a time that charming Charlie Polniaczek had wooed shy, anxious Rose Ferrari.

"I wouldn't give you two cents for Monica Warner," said Rose. "And if Blair –"

Right at that moment, Rose's sister Evelyn, having reached the magical tipping point of just enough Chablis and just enough Schlitz, began to sing "Fly Me To The Moon."

Everyone broke off whatever conversation they were engaged in to listen to Evelyn sing.

She had a surprisingly good voice, rich in timbre, and she knew how to hold a note, even if she couldn't quite hold her liquor.

"Jeez," Charlie muttered, "'Fly Me To The Moon'? She's got enough Schlitz in her to fly to Mars!"

Jo stifled a laugh. Evelyn and Charlie always had some choice word for each other. Right now – point to Charlie Polniaczek!

When Evelyn finished singing, everyone applauded with gusto. Evelyn launched immediately into "Beyond The Sea".

The one person in the room who wasn't watching Evelyn was Rose. Her gaze was fixed on Jo.

She acts so strange, thought Rose, every time Blair comes up. Whatever's changed in Jo – Blair is at the bottom of it.


River Rock had a formal dining room with a massive mahogany table large enough to seat twenty-six people. Blair had covered it with a beautiful but faded linen tablecloth scavenged from the linen closet in her mother's penthouse.

"We're just going to throw it away anyway, Miss Blair," Cook – aka Mrs. Pip – had said.

Similarly Blair had accumulated ("You mean pinched," Jo had told her, laughing) from her mother's pantry a mish-mash of different china plates and platters – Coalport, Lennox, Minton, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood – of different patterns, from various sets. Ditto a collection of heavy silver, completely mismatched utensils, as well as a hodge-podge of wine and champagne glasses.

Someday, thought Blair, regarding the table critically, Jo and I will have matching sets of everything, flatware, silverware, crystal. But for a young couple just starting out, this isn't half-bad.

And at least, she reflected with a shudder, there were no McDonald's "Star Wars" glasses on the table!

Blair had suggested waiting until Jo and Rose arrived that evening for the feast. The turkey and other dishes were carefully covered and placed in the kitchen's enormous ovens to remain warm.

Tootie and her mother went to the Eastland Campus that afternoon, so that Tootie could give her a thorough tour. Pauline's visits had always been so hurried, so brief – today, Tootie could really show her mother the campus as she experienced it day-to-day, as it mattered to her, and Pauline could meet some of her daughter's campus friends.

Alec took Jacqueline to the Peekskill Palace to see a matinee of "Terms of Endearment".

"You must really like Jacqueline," Tootie had teased him earlier, "taking her to a dramatic, girlie movie like that!"

Alec had groaned. "Is this one of those blubbering, three-hanky women's pictures? Have you seen it?"

"Yes," Tootie had laughed, "it is one of those three-hanky women's movies. No, I haven't seen it, but I've read the reviews, and Terry saw it when it opened a couple of day ago – she gave me the whole run-down. Get your handkerchief ready!"

"But Jacqueline said there's an astronaut character who drives a sports car," Alec said with pitiful, almost desperate hope. "I was led to believe there will be some sort of space exploration subplot."

"She really played you," Tootie had said admiringly. "I look up to that girl more and more!"

Natalie had retreated to her room with a fresh carton of fudge ripple ice cream, still in her bathrobe and slippers, to lie on her bed and listen to what Jo always called "friggin mope rock". Alternating between eating and crying, Natalie had reduced herself to a red-nosed mess until Blair pounded on her door in the early evening.

"Natalie Green, you turn off that mope rock and you take a shower! Don't let Belmont's idiocy ruin your holiday – or ours!"

"It always comes back to you Blair, doesn't it!" Nat had shouted at the door. She knew she was being childish – but she didn't care.

"Suit yourself," Blair had called through the door, "but if Belmont does show up tonight, you're going to look frightful. Do you really want him to see you this way? You're a strong young woman – act like it! That'd show him what he risks losing."

"Stupid, know-it-all, selfish, interfering Blair Warner!" Natalie had muttered. But she had put aside the fudge ripple and headed for her shower.

Blair called James, the family chauffer, and asked him to pick up Jo and her Mother, as well as several mystery guests. She called Rose's apartment next.

Rose answered. "Rose Polniaczek."

"Happy Thanksgiving, Rose," Blair said warmly. "I can't tell you how pleased I am, well, we all are, that you'll be joining us tonight."

There was a moment of silence.

"Thanks, Blair," Rose said shortly. "Did you want to speak to Jo?"

Blair swallowed. Wow … Rose does not sound happy. There were few people, male or female, that didn't fall in love with Blair at least a little bit at first sight – Rose Polniaczek, Blair knew, was one of them. Blair always imagined that over time she would be able to get Rose to warm to her, but just now, Rose sounded cold as ice.

"Er, yes," said Blair, "I would like to speak to Jo."

Blair heard Rose put the phone down with a clunk … there was laughter in the near distance, and some woman singing in a throaty, not-half-bad voice ...

"Yo, Blair," said Jo.

"Yo? Is that how you greet me, now?" Blair teased.

"When I'm in Ma's livin room, yep, that's how I greet you. Old buddy."

"So how 'the very special Polniaczek Thanksgiving' proceeding?"

"Real fun, actually. Can you hear my Aunt Evelyn singin?"

"Yes. She's not bad." Blair hesitated. "Your mother sounded – less than pleased with me."

Jo snorted. "'Less than pleased'? You are now, officially, the queen of euphemisms."

"But what did I do to her?"

"Nothin. Look, it's just," Jo lowered her voice, "I can't really talk here, but she's been, ah … just brace yourself, old buddy ol' pal."

"She's figured it out, hasn't she?" asked Blair. "Like you said after the Ma Maison fiasco when school started. Rose doesn't know exactly what's between us, but she intuits it."

"We just gotta be on our total best behavior," Jo whispered. "It's DEFCON 1, old buddy."

"What-con?"

"Military term. I'll explain it later. Just be ready for whatever."

"Aye-aye. Listen, darling, James will pick you up whenever you're ready. Just call 555-5466."

"For Pete's – Blair, I don't think gettin driven up to Peekskill in a fancy limo is gonna pour any oil on these troubled waters."

"I see. So … you're bringing your mother up on your Kawasaki."

A beat of silence. Jo groaned. "I, uh, hadn't really thought about how we were gettin up there," she confessed.

"I know you didn't, my adorable live-in-the-moment Neanderthal. That's why I'm taking care of it. James and his assistant will load your bike or tow it or something, so you don't have to go back to the city for it. And you'll have some fellow passengers. Rose likes them. That ought to take her mind off of her worries and put her in a better mood."

"What fellow passengers?" Jo asked darkly. "What kinda mood are they gonna put me in?"

"You like them too," Blair said, smiling.

"Are you gonna be this bossy," Jo whispered, "when we're finally hitched?"

"Of course not! I'll be much, much bossier. À bientôt, darling. That means –"

"I know what it means, Blair. Summer in Paris, remember? It means 'see ya soon'."

"Au contraire, ma cherie. Tonight, à bientôt means 'be ready for whatever'."


After the guests had left apartment 38 – many reluctantly – and Jo had helped her mother wash the plates and glasses, and set the most heavily encrusted pots and pans in the sink to soak, Jo called 555-5466 and told James that they were ready to be picked up.

Fifteen minutes later, Rose's phone rang. It was James, on some kind of car phone, letting them know that he was downstairs but that they should take their time.

Jo was torn. She loved the Warners' Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman limo. It was a beautiful piece of machinery, a work of art, really, and if she and her mother were going to be sharing their ride with other people, the roomy 600 was the way to go.

That said, Jo knew how overawed Rose would be by the massive limo. The Warners' elegant but much-smaller Rolls-Royce Phantom VI would cause Rose less anxiety – probably – so that might be the way to go, even if it meant they had to practically sit on the other passengers' laps.

At the end of the day, though, Jo knew Rose was awed and nervous at the thought of riding in any of the Warners' chauffeured vehicles. So Jo's automobile-loving heart gave a joyful little leap when she saw the Mercedes-Benz limo taking up about half the block. It gleamed black and silver under the feeble streetlamps. It looked like James or someone had just polished it to within an inch of perfection.

"Mrs. Polniaczek," James said, nodding to Rose. He was a middle-aged man with a fringe of salt-and-pepper hair, taciturn but amiable. Jo liked him immensely. James took Rose's little blue overnight bag. "Miss Polniaczek," he said, nodding to Jo with a warm smile.

"Hiya, James." Jo handed him her black duffle bag.

James deftly stowed both bags in the depths of the limo's rear compartment, then closed the hatch.

"Miss Polniaczek," said James, "allow me to introduce my assistant, Janice." A slender young woman in a smart dark uniform and cap, materialized next to James. She made a little bow that included Jo and Rose. "Janice is my daughter and she's learning the family business. She'll follow us on your Kawasaki."

Jo hesitated. Janice looked as serious and competent as her father, but Jo never liked anyone else to drive her baby.

"If it will put your mind at ease," James said quietly, "Janice has won the Isle of Man TT – twice."

That did put Jo's mind at ease … somewhat. Jo sighed, fished her keys out of her pea coat pocket. She tossed them to Janice, who caught them with a dexterity that Jo found encouraging.

"Got it chained right here," Jo said, leading Janice to the bike. "You oughta know, she's a little skittish on sharp turns. And you don't wanna brake too hard …"

Janice listened attentively to Jo's list of warnings, nodding from time to time to show that she appreciated Jo's points.

James opened the limo's rear door. He smiled at Rose. "Mrs. Polniaczek?"

"Oh, uh, thanks," Rose said nervously. She ducked her head and climbed awkwardly into the vehicle, scooting across the spacious rear bench seat.

"There's champagne in the cooler," James said, "and pop, and club soda."

"Er – thanks," said Rose.

James nodded. He stood by the limo door, waiting for Jo to finish giving Janice all of her instructions.

This is how my baby lives now! Rose thought almost frantically. This is how she lives! With limos and chauffeurs and coolers of champagne! Silk underwear and hundred-dollar scarves! Not earned slowly, with patience and sweat, but dumped right into her lap, out of the blue! No wonder she's changed! No wonder! It's not sex that changed my baby – it's money!

Jo slid into the limo easily, scooting across the rear bench seat to sit next to Rose.

"So, Ma – whaddya think?" Jo grinned. I know you're freakin out Ma, but please, please try to see the fun and glamour in it!

Rose swallowed hard. "It's, ah, overwhelming, Jo."

"Eh, you get used to it," Jo said encouragingly. "No big deal. Just relax, Ma. You worked yourself to the bone the last coupla days – now it's time for you to be pampered!" Jo dipped into the cooler, pulled out a magnum of Champagne Krug. "What do you say, Ma? A little toast?"

"You know I'm not a drinker, Jo."

"Neither am I. But a little toast. C'mon, Ma. Kick up your heels, or at least your toes."

The foil had already been cut. Jo fumbled with the cork. Rose found Jo's perplexity reassuring. At least she hasn't become a champagne addict! thought Rose.

Finally the cork rocketed out of the bottle, ricocheting off the tinted glass partition that separated them from James, and pegging Jo in the eye.

"Son of a –"

"Jo!" said Rose warningly.

"Son of a gun," said Jo. "I was gonna say son of a gun, Ma." Some of the champagne had fizzed out of the bottle, splashing Jo's pea coat.

"Where's the glasses?" Jo wondered aloud. She opened several trim little cabinets, finally locating a carefully packed octet of champagne flutes. She poured a glass for her mother, one for herself and stashed the magnum in the cooler. "A toast," said Jo, "to the best Ma in the world."

Rose raised her glass reluctantly. It felt odd, toasting herself. And she couldn't shake the feeling that, in as much as Jo loved her, and meant the toast sincerely, it was also an attempt to get Rose to let her guard down – to allow herself to be buttered up.

Jo clinked her champagne flute against her mother's, took a sip. "Not bad," Jo said, surprised.

Not bad! she says. Not bad! Rose had caught a glimpse of the label when Jo was struggling with the cork. Champagne Klug – and one of their téte de cuvees – one of their best. Rose had been a cocktail waitress since before Jo was born, and had a fair idea how much a glass of that champagne cost – let alone a magnum of it. What have I got myself into with this trip?

James drove them at a smooth, efficient pace to Manhattan's Upper West Side. As they drove, the buildings evolved from decaying brownstones and burnout tenements to gloriously preserved residences. James pulled up in front of a tony brownstone and cut the engine.

Jo glanced into one of the side mirrors; Janice pulled the Kawasaki up smoothly behind the limo. The bike looked fine.

"Are we here?" Rose asked, surprised. "I thought Blair's house was in Peekskill."

"It is," said Jo. Blair's and my house. "Blair said we'd be pickin up some mystery guests. That's Blair – the Mother Teresa of Manhattan. Probably invited some of her no-good, snobbo friends that can't even get invited to their own family Thanksgivins."

"Jo! That's a terrible thing to say!"

"Well it's true. Blair's always tryin to help everybody – even when they don't need to be helped! It's very annoyin sometimes."

"With all that Blair's done for you, you might show a little more gratitude, Joanne Marie."

Jo sighed. Her mother still wasn't getting it – that she and Blair were best friends. That Blair considered Jo as much of a blessing as Jo considered Blair. That they had permission to be completely honest with each other, even if that sometimes meant being ugly or petty.

The brownstone door opened, and three short, heavily bundled figures (winter coats, mufflers, hats) stepped slowly and carefully down the front stoop of the brownstone.

The figures looked vaguely familiar to Jo. The man, in the center, was helping each of the women, one on his left, one on his right –especially the one on his right, as she was particularly tiny and frail-looking.

James opened the rear door of the limousine for them. One by one they climbed in, claiming the rear-facing bench seat across from Jo and Rose.

Three pairs of twinkling dark eyes smiled over three heavy knit mufflers. The middle-aged woman smelled of some pretty perfume. The man smelled of nice cologne. The tiny, elderly woman smelled like classic eau de toilette, like lilac and violets. Something stirred in Jo's memory.

"Mona!" she exclaimed.

Mona unwound the knit muffler from the lower portion of her face, and her son and daughter-in-law did the same.

"Ma," said Jo, "This is Dr. and Mrs. Green, and Mona Green. This is Nat's mom and dad and gram."

"Pleased to meet you," said Rose, holding out her hand.

"Likewise," said Dr. Green, shaking Rose's hand. "Only we're just Sy and Evie. OK? So this is the mother of the famous Jo Polniaczek! A pleasure to finally meet you. With all of the fine qualities your daughter attributes to you, we didn't know if you could quite be real!"

Rose blushed. She looked genuinely pleased. The Greens had done well, but there was something eminently gentle and down-to-earth about them. Rose felt instantly more at ease.

Mona leaned forward and pinched Jo's cheeks. "There's my little vnooshka! Look how pretty you are! Prettier every time we see you. The boys must be buzzing around you."

Jo blushed, looked down at her shoes. "Eh," she said bashfully.

"Let me tell you," Mona said to Rose, clasping Rose's hand, "you've raised your daughter right. She has such a respect for her elders. And let me tell you, that is not something that you see every day in this world, not by a long shot!"

Jo liked Mona's faint, old-world Russian accent. It was quaint, and as real as the little woman herself. When Mona visited Natalie at Eastland a couple of years before, the girls had learned about Mona's tragic teen years in Russia. Her village was attacked; her fiancée was killed; finally she fled to make a new life in America.

This is a lady, Jo always thought, you could parachute her into the Bronx Barbarians' hangout, and she'd make real short work of 'em!

"I'm so glad Blair invited you to Thanksgiving!" Jo said, to all of the Greens, but to Mona in particular. Jo's grandparents were all dead or overseas. As Jo had told Natalie the night Mona visited Eastland, grandparents were special. They were to be appreciated. "All they wanna do," Jo had said, "is love ya."

"That Blair is an angel, an angel," Mona enthused, holding up one withered finger. "Spitting image of me when I was her age. Well. Blair is a little taller than I was."

She and Jo chuckled.

"Natalie's been depressed lately," Mona continued. "Some boy – as usual! We're Natalie's Thanksgiving surprise – to cheer her up, and remind her how special she is, without or without some boy. Blair set it all up this afternoon – she's a marvel. A marvel!"

Oh, yes, all hail the amazing Blair Warner, thought Rose. And then, What a sourpuss I am! But I can't shake the feeling that Blair is changing my baby somehow. I've had about enough of hearing how wonderful that girl is!

They all chatted together for a few moments. Dr. Green had cousins in the Bronx, and was somewhat familiar with the area. Rose asked Dr. Green about his cases; he launched into a surprisingly interesting and entertaining account of his most recent bypass operation. There was no question that, even being adopted, Natalie had absorbed her quick sense of humor from Sy.

Jo was pleased to see Dr. and Mrs. Green clasping gloved hands together with what appeared to be genuine affection. Nat and the girls had run into Dr. Green at Pagliacci's a couple of years ago, and he'd been dining – well, actually playing tonsil hockey – with another woman. It had just about broken Nat's heart. After Nat confronted him, he'd re-dedicated himself to his wife Evie, and the family … and it looks like that's holdin rock steady, unless he's an amazing freakin actor.

It dawned on Jo after a few moments that they didn't seem to be headed north, up to Peekskill. Instead, they were driving into the heart of the Upper East Side.

She pressed a button. "James?" she said.

"Yes, Miss Polniaczek?" James' voice crackled from the intercom speaker.

"Are we pickin up more passengers, James?"

"Yes." James hesitated; Jo could sense his unease in the pause. "Mrs. Warner just called me on the car phone. She, ah, decided that she wants to surprise Blair."

Jo closed her eyes. I will not blow my top, I will not blow my top, I will not blow my top …

"Thanks, James." Jo turned off the intercom. Well, babe – looks like you're gonna be gettin a special Thanksgivin surprise yourself before the night is through!

Rose started drumming her slender fingers on her armrest. Rose liked Monica Warner, just like she liked Blair, but found both, especially Monica, incredibly intimidating.

"So – who died?" Mona demanded. "Why the long faces?"

"Oh, not at all, Mona," said Jo. "I think I'm just feelin a little goofy after all the turkey I ate today. You know – the food stupids."

Mona lifted one eyebrow, fixed Jo with a 'don't bullshit me' stare. "There's something wrong with this Mrs. Warner? She's going to have a problem, maybe, that there are three Jews in her limousine?"

Jo laughed. "Don't forget the two Catholics! Heh, this is gonna be quite a trip!"

Three Jews of Russian origin, and two Polish-Italian-Irish Catholics, mused Jo. Blair was certainly plunging her mother, albeit unwittingly, into a rich, melting-pot experience. What the hell would they discuss all the way to Peekskill? Monica would be outnumbered by ordinary people … For once maybe she would feel at a loss. The thought made Jo chuckle.

"So – it's not the end of the world?" hazarded Mona.

"No, definitely not," grinned Jo.

They waited a good fifteen minutes, the car and Jo's Kawasaki idling below Monica Warner's multi-million-dollar penthouse, before she finally graced them with her presence.

"So sorry to keep you all waiting," Monica said charmingly, as she scooted onto the rear bench seat next to Rose. Monica was splendid in an Yves St. Laurent creation, in the shades of autumn leaves, and a black sable coat. Her dark hair was perfectly coiffed, makeup impeccable, and she emanated a spicy, costly aroma that Jo found overpowering; she preferred Blair's warm, sweet Aviance.

"Dr. and Mrs. Green, how lovely to finally meet you! And, Mona, is it? Yes, Natalie's plucky grandmamma. Blair has mentioned you on several occasions. And Rose!" Monica air-kissed Rose. "Seems like just yesterday we watched our two girls walk down the aisle."

Jo bit back a grin with great difficulty. Monica was talking about graduation, of course, about the auditorium aisle, but the unintended double entendre was too hilarious. If Monica said anything like that at supper, Jo foresaw a lot of people choking on their soda – or spitting it out!

"Jo," said Monica, leaning across Rose to clasp Jo's hands briefly, "aren't you looking, well, far be it from me to sound critical, but aren't you looking rather plain, Jo?" She took in Jo's jeans, flannel shirt and pea coat with one practiced glance. "At the Plaza, you seemed to have turned a corner – with Blair's assistance of course. You were quite radiant. I would almost go so far as to say 'regal'. And now …" She fluttered her gloved hands helplessly, as if she couldn't quite find the words.

Jo – at the Plaza? wondered Rose. When was that? She doesn't tell me anything anymore!

"Well," said Jo, with a meaningful glance at Monica's ensemble, "we can't all look our best every day."

Monica tilted her head appreciatively. "Touché," she said. "I see that Blair's been tutoring you in more than fashion."

You have no idea, Monica! thought Jo. Christ! Is she really gonna be my mother-in-law some day?

"I know there was some unpleasantness at the Plaza," Monica said to Jo, with one of her most winning smiles, "and I can't help but feel a teensy bit responsible."

"You're too modest," Jo said with her toothiest grin. "You were plenty responsible for what happened. One might almost say completely responsible."

"Well, that's yesterday's news," Monica said, airily brushing it aside. "The past is never more than dust and memories – it's the future that matters. That's why I'm surprising Blair at River Rock tonight, and that's why I need to enlist your help."

"Whose help?" asked Mona Green – politely enough, but with a shrewd, skeptical gleam in her eye. Mona Green didn't trust women in black sable minks and an inch of professionally applied makeup. Women like that always, always had an angle.

"Your help. All of you. And all of Blair's Peekskill chums." Monica gave everyone a conspiratorial wink. "Blair is simply pining away. I can hear it in her voice whenever we speak."

Jo thought of Blair's generous hips, the roses in her cheeks, her healthy appetite – for sex, for food, for walks along the bluff – and her gleaming smile.

"Uh, Monica? Take it from one of her housemates," said Jo, "Blair is not pinin away."

Monica waved an impatient hand, completely dismissing Jo's statement and Jo's right to make it.

"A mother knows," said Monica. "She always sounds distressed when we speak."

Can you blame her? thought Jo.

"No doubt you've heard of her attachment to Lord Nethridge?" Everyone in the car except for Jo stared blankly at Monica. "No? Really? I planted enough little tid-bits about it in the society column these past months."

"You know," Dr. Green said politely, "I'm not much for the society page. I never seem to get past the crossword puzzle."

"For me, it's the entertainment pages," said Mrs. Green. "I love my movies."

"What exactly were you planting in the society column?" Mona Green asked curiously.

Monica smiled. "Blair and Lord Nethridge were practically engaged! And it was all thank to me nudging them together at the Plaza Charity Ball. You were there, Jo, dear. Tell them."

All eyes turned curiously to Jo.

The Plaza Charity Ball, Rose thought, her mind not quite able to fasten firmly to the concept. My baby – at the Plaza Charity Ball. And I never heard a word about it!

Jo took a deep breath. "Blair and Alec have become very close friends," she said. "They're like brother and sister. And Alec is dating Jacqueline Messerschmitt these days. They seem real happy."

"Nonsense!" Monica dispatched friendship and Alec's new love with a single gesture. "How could Alec possibly prefer a Messerschmitt to a Warner? Especially my Blair?"

"I don't know," Jo said, "Jackrabbit, sorry, Jacqueline is a pretty sweet catch."

"Did you say 'Jackrabbit'?" Monica asked.

"Yeah, sorry. She's one of the Langley Lions, and that's her nickname. Because she's so fast."

Monica sniffed. "Fast, indeed. Moving in the moment Blair and Alec were, well, so close to becoming engaged."

"It didn't happen like that," Jo snapped. Now you're really starting to piss me off, woman. Mindless drivel is mindless drivel, but when you start insultin my friends …

"Jo, don't be rude," Rose corrected her automatically.

Jo drew a deep breath. "Monica," she said, in an impossibly civilized tone, "you'll have to take my word for it, since I'm around Blair all the time. She only likes Alec as a brother. They were never engaged. Jacqueline is a lovely person, and she and Alec are goin great guns."

Monica smiled at Jo, but the smile didn't touch her eyes. She had observed at the Plaza what a strange and inappropriate hold Jo was gaining over her daughter. Blair and Jo looked to each other constantly for approval, even when they argued. Jo was edging out Monica as Blair's greatest influence, precisely at the time when the young heiress needed her mother most!

If I alienate Jo right now, I alienate Blair. Best to find some way, any way, to get her on my side …

"Of course, you know best what happened in the moment," Monica agreed. "But as her mother, I can see farther ahead than you. Young lovers spar. Then they make up. My goal is to reunite Blair and Alec – who, I assure you, will make the most perfect, and most perfectly happy couple – before Alec becomes too entangled with this Jackrabbit person."

Sorry Jackrabbit, thought Jo. I hate to sell you out, but …

"Jacqueline is a viscountess," said Jo.

Monica gasped. "I hadn't heard that."

"She keeps it quiet. Doesn't like pretension."

"But the Messerschmitts aren't nobility," Monica objected.

"It's from her mother's side," Jo explained. Jacqueline had shared the whole complicated story during a particularly long bus ride. "Her mother's father – I think that's right – was Viscount of Angledun." Jo looked from face to face. "Jackrabbit doesn't like to talk about it, and she doesn't like anyone to call her Lady Angledun. Or my Lady. She's just plain old Jackrabbit. But you can understand, can't you, Monica, why Alec and Jacqueline are like peanut butter and jelly? Even I gotta admit – it's a good match."

"Angledun!" Monica made an impatient gesture. "What is that – some cow pasture in Wales? Blair's fortune puts Jacqueline's little title in the shade."

Jo cracked her knuckles.

"Jo," Rose chided.

"Sorry, Ma." Jo leaned back against the richly upholstered seat. "As a matter of fact," she said slowly, enjoying this part of the conversation, "Angledun is a tiny little place. But in southeastern England – not Wales. Funny thing: They found some extensive natural gas deposits on the old family estate."

Monica swallowed. "Did they?" she asked quietly.

"Yes. They did. So Jacqueline not only has a title, she's also pretty darn rich. Plus – and here's the kicker, Monica – Alec likes Jackrabbit. A lot."

"But he loves Blair," Monica blurted. "I've seen him look at Blair, and I've heard him talk about her."

Well … you got me there, thought Jo. Alec did love Blair, or thought he did. He was even more than a little in love with Jo. But Jacqueline really seemed to be winning him over.

"Whatever Alec feels for Blair," Jo said firmly, "Blair doesn't love him. She flat out doesn't."

"She can learn to love him," Monica said breezily.

Jo remembered a conversation with Blair, not too long ago, explaining how marriages were still arranged among the upper classes. Sometimes, you had to learn to love …

"Do you really want a title in the family that much?" Jo asked curiously.

Monica blushed. She leaned back in her seat. "I realize you're one of Blair's friends, dear, but that is an impertinent question."

Mona Green shook her head. "My goodness," said the elderly woman, her cheeks pink with excitement, "this is better than the radio! Love and marriage of the rich and famous! I feel like I'm in a front row seat at the old Ziegfeld!"

Monica Warner smiled at her. "You understand what I'm saying, don't you? This younger generation – everything is me-me-me. Some things you do for your family. To advance your family name."

Jo shook her head. If anyone was more me-me-me than Monica Warner, Jo hadn't met them yet!

"It's not really any of our business," Rose said quietly. This whole conversation is surreal. Who cares who that spoiled brat marries? The apple sure doesn't seem to fall far from the tree. Why is my Jo so wrapped up in all of this?

"Me, I'm an old woman," said Natalie's grandmother, spreading her hands. "I've seen war and death and disease."

"So you know what' I'm saying," smiled Monica, pleased to have found an ally. "It's not about indulgences like love – whatever love is supposed to be! It's about security and stability."

"My fiancée died fighting for what he believed in," said Mona. "I never thought I would love again. I did, though. Sometimes we're appointed more than one love in our lives."

"Exactly," said Blair's mother. "You have to move on. You have to be practical, and make it work."

"If there's one thing I've learned," said Mona, lifting one finger, "it's that love is the only thing that matters. Everything we fight for, or work for – it all comes down to love. You find love –" Mona shot a quick look at Jo, "you hang onto it for dear life! You make them pry it out of your cold, dead hands."

Monica didn't know what to make of this extraordinary speech. Was the old woman supporting her, or denouncing her?

"Alec loves Blair," Monica said firmly. "They'll be so beautiful together. Their children will be lords and ladies. My Blair will be a very, very happy woman!"

"Here we're going to comfort our Natalie because a boy didn't call," said Dr. Green, "and you're maneuvering to marry your Blair to an aristocrat!" He shook his head. "With all due respect, Mrs. Warner, give me the simple life!" He squeezed his wife's gloved hand, very hard.

"It changes," Rose said softly, almost to herself. "You think you're going to love someone forever – but it changes. Jo wanted to run away with a boy in the navy."

"Ma, for cryin out loud." Jo rolled her eyes. When would she ever live that down? Blair, Nat and Tootie had told her recently: never!

"If Jo met that boy on the street now, she probably wouldn't give him a second look. My Charlie – I never thought I could ever stop loving my Charlie. But it just … it faded away. It withered. I like Charlie – I'll always like Charlie – but I don't love him."

"Ma!" said Jo, stung.

"I don't, Jo. I'm sorry if it hurts to hear it. But I don't. Love is a game for kids. It's not anything you can count on." She turned to Monica. "If Blair has a chance at real security, for herself and her kids, she should take it. She should grab onto it and never let it go."

"Why, thank you Rose," said Monica, pleasantly surprised at the support. "I couldn't have said it better myself."

Well that's flippin perfect! thought Jo. Now my Ma and Blair's ma want her to marry Alec. This won't cause any damn complications. Not a bit! Happy flippin Thanksgiving, everyone!

Jo closed her eyes for a moment. Everyone in the car was silent, thinking, perhaps about old loves, old losses, missed opportunities, regrets.

When Jo opened her eyes again, Mona Green was looking at her, eyes twinkling.

Jeez, thought Jo, did Nat tell her gram? About me and Blair? Or maybe she's just a real perceptive old thing …

Mona leaned forward and pinched Jo's cheeks. "Skin and bones!" she said. "Skin and bones! You need someone to fatten you up. No, don't argue with me – I'm an old woman. I know what I'm saying."

Jo grinned. I really like this ol bat. Don't get her – but I like her.

They were all silent the rest of the way to Peekskill, except that occasionally Mona hummed scraps of an old Russian love song.


Drake arrived at about seven-thirty pm, bearing a bouquet of roses and a couple of bottles of very good brandy. Mrs. Garrett put the roses in water and the brandy under the bar.

She escorted Drake into the kitchen, where she proceeded to treat him to little bites of the meal, her brown-sugar basted turkey – famous at Eastland – her molasses-cured yams, her cranberry-beet sauce, her homemade biscuits, and so on. By the time Drake was sampling her homemade pumpkin pie, she could tell he was smitten with her cooking.

"You were the Eastland dietician for how many years?" he asked her, sipping a glass of buttermilk.

"Three."

"And you earned your chef hat in Paris?"

"Correct. If you need references –"

Drake waved away references. "I just ate the references," he said. "I'll need to meet with some other suits, but you can consider 'Edna's Edibles' to be unofficially greenlit. Start planning menus – a lot of menus. It's a half-hour timeslot, five days a week. Think stick-to-the-ribs cooking, and build each menu around a theme."

"Oh, my!" Mrs. Garrett said excitedly. "This is all happening so fast!"

"Remember, Edna, you're going to be cooking on air, and while you're cooking, you have to explain to the viewers what you're doing. But since you've taught, that shouldn't be a problem. Your personality – well, the camera likes a bigger-than-life personality! And it's gonna love your red hair." He touched the flaming red bun tentatively.

"Drake," said Mrs. Garrett, tentatively touching his thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair, "if you're going to be my producer, we probably shouldn't … well …"

Drake smiled. "Then Edna, I hereby vow to appoint another producer on Monday."

He kissed her – or she kissed him. Somehow, their lips locked. They kissed for a good long while. The door bell began to ring, insistently.

Alec stormed into the kitchen, which was intoxicatingly fragrant with delicious foods. "Isn't one of you ladies going to bloody well answer – oh!" He blushed. "I, uh, I'll answer the door," he said, beating a hasty retreat.

Mrs. Garrett and Drake never noticed him.


"Hullo, Boots," said Alec, surprised.

Boots St. Clair was almost the last person he expected to see on their doorstep.

The slight, high-strung socialite was president of Gamma Gamma sorority and had been trying to convince Blair to pledge all semester – to no avail.

And at Petal Von Schuylkill's Halloween house party, Boots had made what appeared to be a sad little pass at Jo; at any rate, she'd asked Jo to dance. Jo had declined, in front of God and Society, and Blair had been more than a little snooty with Miss St. Clair.

Just now Boots was shivering on the doorstep of River Rock. She was wrapped in an off-white mink coat, fur hat and thick gloves, but she was trembling as if she were wearing a nightgown. Faint snow flurries fell, as they had been doing off and on all day.

"Well, Lord Nethridge, aren't you going to invite me in?" she demanded through chattering teeth.

"Are, is, uh, Blair expecting you, Boots?"

"No one is expecting me!" she said dramatically. "Mother and father went to Iceland, only they forgot to mention it. And Uncle Sebastian is in Vale. And the Gamma Gamma house is deserted, everyone's gone home, and we even gave the cook the day off. I remembered that Jo and Blair decided to start their own sorority –"

"This isn't a sorority," objected Alec. "Clue number one, my dear Boots, being that I live here."

"You're some sort of ménage a trois, aren't you?" Boots asked despondently. "You and Warner and Polniaczek."

Alec laughed. "Only in me fantasies, duckie!" He held out his hand. "You might as well come in. No sense your turning into an icicle on our front porch."

When Alec had shut the outer door, and the inner door, and he was gallantly taking Boots' coat and hat and gloves in the foyer, with its magnificent old black-and-white-checked marble floor, he felt a small, cylindrical metal object thrust into his hand.

"What's this?" He regarded it curiously. It was a can of A&P beets.

"I brought a dish," Boots explained. "That's what you do, isn't it? You bring a dish of something."

"Yes, Boots, but this isn't a dish, it's a can. You're supposed to bring a prepared dish. To create less work for the hosts, you understand – not more."

"Well, there was no one to prepare it for me," Boots said reasonably. "Just give that to your kitchen people, and they'll whip it up in no time – whammo!"

"We don't have 'kitchen people'," said Alec. "We are the kitchen people."

"Who?"

"Blair and Jo and I and Mrs. Garrett, et al."

"That's dreadful," Boots said sympathetically. "Blair certainly didn't think that out – did she?"

Divested of her voluminous white mink coat, Boots was the spindliest little person Alec had ever seen. She looked like a good strong winter gust would blow her straight back to Gamma Gamma. Her dark pantsuit hung on her as if she were a clothes rack.

Boots must have worn padding, thought Alec, when she wore that Princess Leia bikini at Petal's party. And Jacqueline thinks she's a bit angular. Ye gods and little fishes! Boots makes my Jacqueline look like Marilyn Monroe …

Alec led Boots up and down a couple of staircases and through a maze of little corridors. "Pardon the hike," he said, "we're a bit like Bleak House, here." He finally threw open a door into a large parlor, decorated in warm reds and oranges. There was a crackling fire in the hearth, and a silver tray of various liquors and wines and sodas on the hutch.

"Boots is here," Alec announced.

Everyone looked up – Natalie, Tootie, Justice Ramsey and Blair. They all lifted their eyebrows.

"She didn't have anywhere else to go. More touching than 'Oliver Twist'." He gave Boots a friendly little push into the parlor, and then headed back to the kitchen with the can of beets.

Back in the kitchen, Drake and Mrs. Garrett were still lip-locked. His hands cupped her face.

Alec cleared his throat loudly.

The couple broke apart. They turned, looked at Alec in a rather dazed way.

"Oh. Hi, Alec," said Mrs. Garrett.

"Now, I'm not opposed to middle-aged snogging in principle," said Alec, "because someday I'll be middle-aged, and I'm sure I'll still be snogging away. But Mrs. Garrett, for the love of God, this house needs a responsible role model! Between Blair running around without pants, and Natalie looking like she's going to slit a wrist any moment, we need someone to demonstrate that love can be sensible. And restrained."

"Well if you're looking for someone to demonstrate that message," said Mrs. Garrett, demurely patting her bun of red hair, "you're barking up the wrong tree, Alec."

"Mrs. Garrett!"

"Frankly," she continued, "I think that's a role that's already being filled – and very well – by you and Jacqueline."

"Really?" Alec considered that. "Me? A role model?"

"Well … you and Jacqueline. Although the next time she sneaks out of your room in the morning, you might want to shut the window before any chipmunks get in."

Alec flushed a dull red. "How did you know?" he asked.

"Alec – I'm Edna Garrett." She shook his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

"Do the girls know?" he asked.

"I don't think so. But with the Snoop Sisters around, it won't be long before they do. Natalie's been distracted by Belmont, and Tootie's been focused on the play, but pretty soon, they'll be back on point."

"Damn. I, we didn't expect it to get so serious so quickly. But Jacqueline's a truly smashing girl. And very … enthusiastic."

Mrs. Garrett held up her hands. "Alec, as I've told Blair and Jo, there are details that I don't need. But I am happy for you. And you both certainly have my blessing. Now unless you want to help, I need you to vacate the kitchen! I have last-minute preparations to make. And you can take Drake with you, so he doesn't distract me."

"I think we're being given the bum's rush," Drake told Alec.

Alec snorted. "I can't be given the bum's rush. It's my ruddy kitchen too. But since I don't want to help …" He turned to leave, then remembered the can of A&P beets. He set it in the center of the butcher's block table. "A little Thanksgiving gift," he said, "from Boots St. Clair."

"But we don't need any more beets," objected Mrs. Garrett. "I refuse to open another can today!"

"It's a gesture," said Alec. "Boots St. Clair bringing a can of beets is comparable to your Grinch bringing all the toys and food back to Whoville."

"What does that mean?" asked Drake.

"It means Boots' heart is no longer 'two sizes too small'."

"And that means …?" Drake pressed.

"I thought you were a television producer. Have you never seen the 'Grinch' program?"

"Out of my kitchen!" ordered Mrs. Garrett. "Both of you! March!"

"Boots St. Clair," Alec explained to Drake, as they navigated the narrow corridors and steps to the parlor, "is from one of those very old, terrifyingly exclusive families that become so inbred, everyone is like a nervous whippet. For her to attend our plebian gathering, something very interesting has happened inside her."

"Like what?"

"I don't know precisely what, old man. But something …"


Every time the doorbell rang, Alec went to the front door to answer it, not out of any altruistic spirit, but because he wanted to be the one to open the door for Jacqueline.

The first time he went, Petal Von Schuylkill, aka Moose, and Portia Barclay, aka Lefty, stood on the front porch, teeth chattering. Longtime social acquaintances of Blair, and Jo's Langley Lions teammates, they were instantly, if not warmly welcomed by Alec and shown into the house.

"Beautiful place," Petal said admiringly as Alec took their jackets. "Wish I'd thought to rent a house when I was a freshman."

"Not to be rude," said Alec, throwing their coats into the large closet, "but what are you doing here?"

"You are very rude," Petal said calmly, "but I will answer you anyway. We were going on a ski trip –"

"Vermont," Portia interjected. "Petal and Jacqueline and I."

"But since you've turned Jacqueline's head all the way around and back again, she cancelled on us at the last minute."

"To spend the holiday with you," Portia said accusingly.

"I didn't know she was planning to go anywhere with you," Alec said honestly. "And luckily for me, nor do I care. That still doesn't explain why you're here."

"Well, you know, insufferable man, we batted it around," said Petal, "do we go up to Vermont without our best friend? Immediate answer: of course not. So we came here. We don't mind sharing Jacqueline, as long as we get to be with her."

"Why is everyone in love," the languorous little blonde asked, "except me?"

"Arthur and I are on the rocks," Petal said severely. "But you don't see me crying. No moping, tonight, Portia. Stiff upper lip. I mean it! It's a celebration."

Portia sighed. "If only Gerald –""

"Portia!" Petal said warningly.

"Very well. Very well."

Alec led them to the parlor.

The next time the door bell rang, he found a shivering young woman in an Eastland athletic jacket. Strands of a dark bob poked out from under her Eastland winter hat.

"I'm Terry," she said, "one of Tootie's friends."

"From Eastland?"

"Yes."

"Is she expecting you?"

"No. I stayed over in my dorm so I could get in some extra training during break. I figured there'd be at least a few other girls there. But I was the only one. So I thought, maybe Tootie wouldn't mind if I dropped in on her tonight. She's here, isn't she?"

"All of Peekskill seems to be here," said Alec, "except for my girlfriend." He peered out into the darkness. Light flurries of snow were still sifting down, like sugar on a Christmas pudding, and it was cold as hell. He saw Blair's truck outside the garage, and Drake's car, and Petal's Porsche, and his own little coupe. "How did you get here?" he asked Terry.

"I ran."

"Pardon?"

"I ran. I told you, I stayed at Eastland to get some training in."

"Bloody crazy Americans," he muttered, leading her to the parlor.

The next time he opened the door, Belmont Keane stood on the porch. The young actor was almost as tall as Alec, and had an even richer voice, though American, rather than British, in intonation. Belmont's boyish good looks and the beauty of his voice had landed him the plum – albeit small – role of Dr. Truman on 'St. Elsewhere'.

Alec frowned. "Belmont, old chap, I hope you brought a helmet. And a cup."

"So … she's upset," said Belmont.

"Too right!" Alec leaned against the doorframe, purposely leaving Belmont out on the freezing cold porch. "Natalie has a right to be pretty damned aggro. You don't tell a young lady you're going to telephone and then leave her twisting in the wind."

Belmont blushed. "You seem pretty quick to defend her."

"She's become like a little sister to me. A loud, annoying, sometimes violent little sister. And thanks to you all I've heard the past fortnight is Belmont, Belmont, bloody Belmont."

"She's missed me?" Belmont asked, with an idiotic smile. "So … Natalie really does like me?"

"God's teeth! It's like being back in Year 4! Of course she likes you, dunce. So if you like her, stop being a jackass and show her. Or I shall have to tear your arms off, or some other brotherly gesture."

"Got it."

"I sincerely hope so!" Alec stepped aside, finally allowing Belmont into the house. "Your cousin's here, by the way."

"To which of my thousand cousins are you referring?"

"Petal."

Belmont groaned. "So … She'll probably take Natalie's side."

"This whole house is a never-ending hen party – everyone is going to take Natalie's side. Prepare yourself for the daggers which you will see before you ..."

By the next ring of the doorbell, Alec had relinquished any hope of it being Jacqueline. Clearly, he thought despondently, Jacqueline had been spirited off to Alpha Centauri by a passing space craft, never to be seen again.

"It's only you," Jo said irritably, stamping her feet on the front porch to keep her circulation going.

"I've missed you as well, darling," Alec said sweetly.

"I wanted Blair to answer the door," Jo said. "I wanted to see her face when – well, never mind. Your face will do."

Behind her, people were pouring out of an enormous limo.

Alec was suddenly enveloped by a sea of strangers – someone named Rose, who looked like a shorter, life-worn but still pretty version of Jo; an elderly woman who pinched his cheeks and told him he looked like "Chuck from 'Guiding Light'"; a pleasant middle-aged man and woman who murmured gentle "Hellos"; and then –

"Alec! Dearest!" cried Monica, folding him against her perfumed Yves St. Laurent bosom. "It's been too long since we've spoken. We have to put our heads together, Alec. We have to find a way to reunite you and Blair."

Christ, not the Warner harridan! thought Alec. Too long since we've spoken? She called yesterday …

Alec caught Jo's eye; she stood near the front door, smirking. Thanks for the warning, Alec telegraphed to Jo over Monica's shoulder.

My pleasure, Jo telegraphed back.

Alec managed to take everyone's assorted coats, hats, scarves and galoshes and pitched everything into the closet. "Everyone follow me," he said, "to h'ors d'oeuvres and hot cider and for those who need it, a good stiff drink."

Jo tugged his sleeve.

"What?" he demanded impatiently. The sooner he delivered everyone to the parlor, the sooner he could return to his post to wait for Jacqueline.

"Tell Blair to meet me in the garage," Jo whispered in his ear.

"Why?"

"None of your business!"

"I don't bloody care, but Blair is going to ask me."

"Tell her it's a surprise."

"As you like. Please relinquish my sleeve."

"Thanks, Blitheridge."


When Belmont entered the parlor, he had eyes only for Natalie. She was talking quietly with Petal and Portia on the overstuffed crimson sofa.

Natalie wore a royal-blue dress, and her hair was carefully arranged, but Belmont could see lines of strain on her face, a marked sadness in her eyes.

When Natalie turned and saw him, all the color drained from her face. Tears welled up in her beautiful, expressive blue eyes.

I did that, thought Belmont grimly. That's my fault.

Natalie stood up slowly. Belmont crossed the room to her like a man going to meet his doom. If she slugged him, if she kicked him, he accepted that it was no more than he deserved.

"Who let you in?" Natalie demanded, angrily brushing the tears from her face.

"Alec."

"Guys always stick together!"

"He threatened to tear my arms off. For … hurting you. Natalie, I'm sorry." Belmont looked at the floor. "There was an actress. That I met before I met you. The actress and I … we had a sort of understanding."

"I thought we had an understanding," Natalie said bitterly.

"Belmont, you're such an ass," Petal told her cousin. "Because you're not an ass. Why would you do this to Natalie?"

Belmont took Nat's hands. "I've broken it off. With the actress. I didn't want to talk to you until I ended it with her. I needed to be sure I was doing it because I wanted to do it, and not because you were influencing me."

"Of course!" said Natalie, dropping his hands. "Because I'm so influential in your life!"

"Natalie," Belmont captured her hands again, "in case you haven't noticed, you are sort of a force of nature. You can be very persuasive. And logical. And, and just plain tough to say 'no' too. I wanted to spend some time with Kim –""

"Kim? Kim? What kind of a name is 'Kim'?"

"Uh, a girl's name?"

"Kim!"

"I wanted to spend some time with her and be sure I was over her. And, Natalie, I am so over her. She's not half as bright as you. She's not half as funny. You want to go out into the world and learn things and do things. She just wants to lie by the pool and get a tan."

"So you've been lying by the pool with her! And she's a bronzed bathing beauty –whereas, let's face it, I make Poppin' Fresh look like he's got a sunburn!"

"I, uh, seem to be making a mess of this," Belmont stammered. I never stammer! What is this girl doing to me? "Natalie, what I'm trying to say is that I'm yours, if you want me. I have to be in L.A. most of the time, and it'll be long distance, but if you're willing to give it a try, and I hope you are, that's what I want. Because I just think it would be really, really cool to have a girlfriend who's going to win the Pulitzer some day."

Natalie sniffed. More tears spilled down her plump cheeks.

"Belmont, that all sounds great," she said huskily. "It would've been wonderful to hear that – if you'd called like you said you would."

"I wanted to surprise you," he said. "You know? A grand gesture. Show up on Thanksgiving. Surprise!" He held out his arms. He smiled engagingly.

"Well, 'surprise' – you're too late," said Natalie.

She turned on her heel and left the room.

It was only a few moments later that her family arrived – her grandmother, her mother, her father – along with Rose and Monica.

Blair stared at her mother.

"Surprise!" Monica cried gaily. She air-kissed her daughter. "Happy Thanksgiving, dear!"

"What a … lovely surprise," Blair managed, with a glued-on smile.

"My, you're looking a trifle wan," observed Monica. "I hope you're not … pining over anything. Or anyone?"

"Excuse me," Alec told Monica, as he took Blair's arm, "but I have something important to discuss with Blair."

"Oh, certainly," said Monica, with a roguish smile. "You two talk for as long as you like!" She winked.

Alec led Blair toward the far door; he whispered intently in her ear.

"Thank you," said Blair, squeezing his shoulder. She was out of the room in a flash.

"Where's my little vnooshka?" Mona Green demanded, looking around. "Tootie – Where's my Natalie?"

"Hi, Gramma Green," said Tootie, hugging the elderly woman. "Natalie was upset. She's gone upstairs to collect herself."

"She's still missing that boy?" asked Mona.

"No, she found the boy," said Tootie. "Or he found her." Tootie nudged her chin toward Belmont, who was sitting, clearly miserable, on an uncomfortable-looking straight back chair in the corner, nursing a glass of hot cider.

"This? Him? This is the boy?" Mona demanded.

"That would be he," Tootie said grimly.

"Sy," Mona said to her son, "go talk to this boy. Explain to this boy that he can't break our Natalie's heart the way he has!"

Dr. Green nodded. "It's a father's duty," he agreed. "But what are you going to do?" He knew his mother; she was never one to sit on the sidelines.

"Evie and I are going to talk some sense into Natalie, of course. For God's sake! Hunka-hunkas like this Belmont don't grow on trees, do they?"

Dr. Green smiled. "I don't suppose they do."

Rose watched this exchange anxiously. She didn't really know anyone in the room except Tootie, and the young student was preoccupied. Tootie made a dab at playing hostess, introducing Rose to everyone in the room, but it went too fast, Rose didn't catch all the names, didn't understand some of the connections.

The hulking woman on the sofa was apparently Petal, nicknamed Moose, the one that Jo raved about, the former captain of the Langley Lions. But who was the little blonde next to Petal? Parsnip? Parsley? Rose hadn't quite caught the name. And who was the young girl in the athletic jacket? Who was the handsome older man with the salt-and-pepper hair?

Rose quietly found a chair at the edge of the room and sat down. Belmont Keane was sitting across the room, looking like a crestfallen little boy. Belmont Keane! She and Jo had just seen him on 'St. Elsewhere' last night … well, not him, but his character, Dr. Truman. And now Dr. Green was lecturing the young man, and the more Dr. Green spoke, the more the young actor drooped …

Monica Warner was mixing herself some complicated cocktail; Rose could see the wheels clicking behind the socialite's eyes. Always plotting and planning – but why shouldn't she want the best for her daughter? Rose wanted the best for Jo. And if the handsome man who had welcomed them into the house was Lord Nethridge, he did look like quite a catch …

Where was Jo? She had vanished before they even reached the parlor. These were her friends. This was her … home. Yes. Rose hated to admit it, but this was Jo's home now.

Rose had watched her daughter's eyes light up as the limo turned off the main road, onto the winding drive that led up River Rock. Jo had said the house was large, but Rose was completely unprepared for the massive Victorian of wood and natural stone. Even in the darkness, with flakes of snow drifting down, Rose could tell by the many warmly lit windows that this was a mansion – almost a little castle.

Jo's face had beamed as the limo pulled up in front of the house. She all but threw herself out of the car, before James even opened the car door, and raced up to the front porch.

This is her home now. She's only been here a month, but it's where she feels happy. And it's not about the house, it's about the people in it …

Such a motley group … The man with the salt-and-pepper hair offered Rose a drink. She asked for a Coke; he brought it to her in a chipped cut-crystal glass. A spindly young woman with long brunette hair stopped by Rose's chair briefly. "I brought beets," the young woman said proudly. "That's, ah, very nice," Rose said. What else could one say?

Mrs. Garrett finally appeared. She greeted Rose warmly, with a hearty embrace, and kissed Rose's cheek. "I imagine all of this is a little bit overwhelming," Mrs. Garrett said kindly.

Rose nodded. At last – someone understood.

"I had no idea," said Rose, "that River Rock is so big. Or that there are so many of you here."

"Well, we don't all live here," said Mrs. Garrett. "But it's a pretty lively bunch! Don't worry; you'll get all the names and connections down before the end of the night." Mrs. Garrett raised her voice in her trademark, attention-getting bellow: "Dinner, everyone! In five minutes, in the dining room!"

Natalie, escorted by her mother and her grandmother, appeared a moment later. Her eyes were red-rimmed but she was smiling. Belmont stood up when she entered the room. She held out her hands; he went to her. "Mom," she said bashfully, "Grandma – this is Belmont. My boyfriend."

Lord Nethridge appeared in the doorway a moment later, handsome face a little bashful.

He really was a beautiful young man, thought Rose, more handsome, truth be told, than Belmont Keane. Lord Nethridge – 'Alec', Jo called him – had his arm around a slender redhead who wore red lipstick and had the crisp movements and staccato diction of a young Katherine Hepburn. This must be the famous Jacqueline, thought Rose, the viscountess – the one Alec prefers to Blair.

Rose saw Monica Warner glaring at Jacqueline with barely concealed hostility.

"Damned sorry and all that," Jacqueline told the room. "Bit of a to-do with the Jaguar. My apologies. Didn't mean to hold up the feast."

"You're right on time, Jacqueline," Mrs. Garrett said firmly. "And now, as we're all here – let's adjourn to the dining room. 'Good food, good meat, good God, let's eat'!"

"Wait a minute," said Rose. "Where's Jo?"

"And where is Blair?" asked Boots. She sniffed. "You'd think Warner would be here to greet her guests!"

"I beg your pardon, Miss St. Clair," said Monica, "but you are talking about my daughter." She looked around. "Does anyone know where Blair went?"

"She, ah, had something to do," said Alec. "Let's not wait on her."

"Not wait on Warner? The hostess?" Boots asked incredulously. "I've never heard of such a thing."

"Boots," Alec said, "I'd venture to guess there are a great many things you've never heard of. But for your elucidation, allow me to point out that River Rock has several hostesses. Mrs. Garrett, and Tootie, and Natalie are hostesses. Blair and Jo, although they are the actual lessees –"

"What?" asked Rose.

"I said that River Rock has a number of hostesses," said Alec.

"No. I mean about, about Jo leasing River Rock."

"Yes?"

"What do you mean?"

"I suppose I mean, that, ah, Jo, with Blair, is one of the lessees of River Rock."

"But how can that be?"

Alec sighed. Jacqueline jabbed him in the ribs with one of her sharp elbows.

"You'll have to ask Jo about that," he said. "I seem to have put my foot in it, and Jo is going to have my guts for garters – but what else is new?"

"Let's go in to dinner," Mrs. Garrett said hastily. "Jo and Blair must be working on something, maybe some surprise for later. They'll be right along, I'm sure."

Working on a surprise! thought Alec. He suspected that whatever 'surprise' they were working on had nothing to do with Thanksgiving and everything to do with each other. He recollected the time he'd surprised them at the Plaza, tussling behind some foliage in the lobby, flushed and tousled, Jo's lip bleeding. They were glorious creatures …

"Ahem," said Jacqueline.

"Of course," Alec said. He led her into dinner.


The garage was heated, but Jo shivered with anticipation as she waited for Blair.

It was a large garage, but they rarely parked their vehicles within it. Blair usually just left her truck outside. Jo did the same with her Kawasaki, Mrs. Garrett with her car, and Alec with his little coupe. But now, with the snow flying and the temperature dropping, that would have to change …

Jo had a work bench in the garage. Her battered tool case, one of the loves of her life, next to her mother, her Kawasaki and Blair, sat on the work table in a place of honor. Over time, Jo planned to spend a lot of happy hours out here, fixing things up for the house …

"Darling!" cried Blair, banging open the garage door. It slammed shut behind her.

For a second Blair paused on the threshold, just drinking in Jo's appearance. Jo looked like Jo – plain old, beautiful Jo, with her pony tail and her pea coat, standing near her work bench under one of the green-shaded lights.

"Babe," Jo said softly, opening her arms.

Blair flew at her. Jo was ready. Blair leaped into Jo's arms, and Jo spun her around and around, both of them laughing.

Jo sat down, pulling Blair onto her lap. One of Jo's arms slipped around Blair's waist. The other hand cupped the blonde's face, tilted it under the light.

Blair's broad cheekbones, her perfectly chiseled nose and jaw, her warm milk-chocolate eyes with the green and gold flecks, her dark eyebrows, such an enticing contrast to her long blonde hair … Blair was always and ever angelically beautiful to Jo.

But even more beautiful was the light, the vibrant intelligence and essential goodness that shone in Blair's eyes, her smile.

"I could look at you forever," Jo said quietly. "You're so beautiful. I missed looking at you. I missed holding you like this."

"I missed being held," said Blair. She sighed contentedly. I love feeling Jo's hands on me. I forget how delicate her hands are, so pretty, but so strong. Jo's slender fingers traced the contours of Blair's face. Blair turned her head, kissed Jo's palm.

Jo pulled Blair's face closer, gently, kissed the broad, supple mouth with infinite tenderness. Blair returned the kiss with equal gentleness.

Her lips taste like cider, thought Jo.

Jo's lips taste like champagne, thought Blair.

Blair slipped her arms around Jo's shoulders, laced her fingers behind Jo's neck. She contemplated Jo's blue-green eyes, the straight eyebrows, the mobile, feminine mouth, the swan-like neck and throat.

"Darling?"

"Yeah?"

"Never go away again? Please?"

Jo laughed.

"I'm serious," said Blair.

"I know, babe." Jo kissed Blair's neck, the hollow of her throat. "I missed you so much, Blair. I missed you, I missed you …" Her words became indistinct, muffled by kisses across Blair's collar bone.

Blair pushed her hands up into Jo's dark hair, tangled there, guided Jo's head down, down toward Blair's large breasts, which were straining against her silk blouse.

"I wish you could take me now," murmured Blair.

"Believe me when I tell you that I can," murmured Jo.

"No … Dinner … In five minutes. Maybe less …"

Jo kissed Blair's breasts through the silk layers of her blouse and bra. Jo felt Blair's hardened nipples pressing against the sleek fabric. Blair moaned.

With an incredible effort, Blair guided Jo's head up, away from her breasts, back to her mouth. Jo kissed Blair's mouth softly, then darted her tongue between Blair's lips. Their tongues brushed, then explored each other hungrily. The two young women panted, pressing closer together.

"I love you, Jo," Blair whispered, breaking the kiss.

"Please," groaned Jo. "Now. I need you so much, Blair."

"I'm sorry darling, "Blair said with real regret, "but we have a dinner to get through. Later … after everyone goes to sleep … we have all night."


It was, Rose had to admit, a really lovely Thanksgiving dinner, and not as overawing as she'd expected.

Once she started to get everyone's names and relationships down, and once she noticed that not a single cup or utensil or plate matched, she found herself feeling more at ease.

She remembered before she married Charlie, when she and a couple of her friends had shared an apartment on Arthur Avenue. All their furniture, all their glasses and plates, were completely mismatched.

The more Rose looked at River Rock, that's what she saw – a place that friends were renting, together, with a hodge-podge of items each one had thrown into the pot. Someone – probably Blair, she had to admit – had an artistic eye, and had valiantly tried to pick out unifying colors or themes in each room. But it was still an eclectic brew …

The food was incredible. After cooking and eating most of the day, Rose had expected to just pick politely at the dishes offered, but she found herself eating a lot. I have to ask Mrs. Garrett for the yam recipe …

Rose liked Jo's friends. Petal and Portia and Jacqueline were bright but down-to-earth, with none of the pretension that Rose had expected. Even that odd girl – Beets? – kept looking admiringly at Jo. They all looked up to Jo, and how could Rose dislike anyone with such good taste?

Rose still didn't like the idea of Alec cohabiting with the girls, but, as Jo had said, River Rock really was a large house. There was plenty of room for the housemates to spread out and give each other privacy.

And Lord Nethridge seemed like a fine young man – although there was something brooding and wounded about him, underneath. On the surface he was charming, witty, and extremely attentive to Jacqueline – much to Monica Warner's obvious chagrin! He teased Jo, Blair, Natalie and Tootie as if they really were his sisters.

Mrs. Garrett appeared to be blooming. That handsome older man was a television producer. Mrs. Garrett was going to host a cooking show – and who better to do so?

Justice Ramsey, now she was impressive! Rose was a little bit afraid of Tootie's mother. That's a woman who really did something with her life, thought Rose. She decides issues of life and death, right and wrong. I must seem so silly to her … As the night progressed, Rose grew more at ease with the guests, with the singular exception of Pauline.

The one thing that still troubled Rose was Alec's comment about Jo leasing River Rock. Rose had assumed that Blair had either bought or leased the magnificent old manor, and that she was charging some sort of nominal rent from her friends, based, probably, upon what each could afford.

The thought of Jo – Jo, who could barely afford Langley College, even with a scholarship – being on the lease with Blair, putting her signature on a legal document – that confounded and troubled her mother.

Jo was proud … Was that it? Did she refuse to move into the house with the other girls unless her name was on the lease with Blair's? Would it have seemed like charity to her otherwise?

After dinner they retired to the drawing room, a large, comfortable old chamber with a vaulted, dark-timbered ceiling. Dr. Green lit a cigar. He and Evie and Mona were in deep conversation with Natalie and Belmont. Boots sat with the Lions, although she appeared ill at ease, and kept looking toward Jo.

Pauline, Tootie and Terry chatted with Mrs. Garrett and Drake. Monica sat with them, but she wasn't really connecting with their conversation; she kept looking thoughtfully at Alec and Jacqueline, who played bartender.

Jo and Blair played hostess. They circulated from guest to guest, with smiles and conversation, asking everyone if they had everything they needed.

Rose bit back a smile at the same time that her eyes welled with proud tears. Her rough-and-tumble Jo – hosting a Thanksgiving celebration!

Everyone lights up when Jo pays attention to them. Her charm she gets from Charlie, mused Rose. But her kindness – I like to think she gets a little bit of that from her mom …

Around midnight, Petal stood up and clinked her champagne glass with a spoon.

"Eh, what gives?" called Jo. "It ain't your house this time, Moose."

"Nevertheless," said Petal unflappably. "I want to propose a toast." She lifted her glass in Blair and Jo's direction. Everyone else followed suit. "To Blair Warner, the most popular girl at Langley College –"

"And the most beautiful," Alec chimed in. "Ow!" he muttered, as Jacqueline elbowed him.

"And to Jo Polniaczek," Petal continued, "the smartest girl at Langley College, and captain of the Lions. Thank you both for this gathering, which is as rich in good will, as it in delicious food."

"Hear, hear!" said Belmont.

Everyone took a sip of their drink.

"And to Natalie Green, and Dorothy Ramsey," said Petal, lifting her glass again, "who are also our hostesses, and who will someday be the toasts of the New York Times and Broadway, respectively."

"Hear, hear!" said Belmont, with real feeling. Everyone took a sip of their drink.

"And to Edna Garrett," finished Petal, "the culinary artist who concocted our meal, and soon to be a daily fixture of morning television."

"In the New York area, anyway," laughed Mrs. Garrett.

"Hear, hear!" said Alec. Everyone drank.

"Ooh!" said Boots excitedly. "Can we tell ghost stories now? Like at Petal's?"

"It's not Halloween anymore," Petal said kindly.

"Let's go around the room," said Natalie's grandmother, "and say what we're thankful for."

"Smashing idea!" said Jacqueline.

"Whammo!" Boots said approvingly.

"How do we organize this?" asked Alec. "I mean, so it's not a free-for-all."

"What's wrong with a free-for-all?" demanded Natalie. "It's a democracy, isn't it? I say, everyone just jump in!"

"That's where you Americans are so unsystematic," said Alec. "Now, with a little organization –"

"I'll go first," said Natalie, cutting him off. She beamed at her family. "This year, more than ever, I'm thankful that I have a family that really loves me, enough to come up here when they heard I was a little down in the dumps. And I'm thankful that I've met a boy who might," she squeezed Belmont's hand, smiled shyly at him, "might turn out to be somebody pretty special."

Belmont kissed Natalie's hand. "I'm thankful," he said, "for second chances."

"And don't expect any third chances," Natalie's grandmother said firmly. Everyone laughed.

"I'm thankful for my health," said Dr. Green, "and the health of my loved ones and their friends. Eat an apple a day, kids! That isn't just an old wives' tale!"

"I'm thankful for my daughters Natalie and Brenda," said Mrs. Green. "I wish Brenda could be here tonight, but she's with us in our hearts. My Natalie … I can't recognize her, sometimes, she's becoming such a young woman! And she's a young woman of principle. I couldn't be more proud."

Natalie hugged her mother, tears in her eyes.

"Anybody who knows me knows I don't like a lot of schmaltz," said Mona Green. "So I don't want to be sappy. But I have got to brag a little: I have the best son, and the best daughter-in-law, and the best granddaughters in the world. So many people I've buried, I know nothing lasts forever. So let's love it while it lasts!" She raised her champagne flute.

"I second that," Alec said, downing his champagne. He stretched out one arm for a fresh magnum; Jacqueline firmly moved it out of his reach.

"I'm thankful for Jo," said Petal. "I can't imagine our lives if she hadn't come into them. She's an incredible athlete, and a damn fine leader. Cheers."

"I'm thankful we made it to nationals," said Portia. "Even though we didn't win. This was my last chance, being a senior –"

"Mine too," Petal added.

"And Jo was a big part of that, but it was all of us. So I guess I'm thankful for the team."

"Rather!" applauded Jacqueline. "And I'm thankful for the team as well. Lucky I'm only a junior – I get to do it all over again next autumn. And next time, we're taking home that big beautiful national trophy! To honor and glory!"

"Honor and glory!" Petal, Portia and Jo said together.

"I'm thankful I'm getting my grades up," said Terry, "because I want to apply to Langley in a couple of years. I want to be a Lion – and hopefully Jo will still be captain. Go Lions!"

Everyone cheered.

"I'm grateful for my friends," said Tootie. "No matter what happens, my friends are always there for me, especially the other musketeers. When I was learning all those lines for 'The Women', when I had stage fright, when I was ready to quit, Nat and Jo and Blair were there for me all the way. And Mrs. Garrett. She's like the fifth musketeer! And our new brother, Alec. Not to mention –"

"All right, all right, Sarah Bernhardt, let someone else speak," said Jo.

"I am thankful for this weekend," said Pauline. "I thought I knew my daughter. I was wrong."

Tootie gasped. Pauline put a hand on Tootie's shoulder.

"Dorothy, I have to confess I always thought this acting nonsense, was, well, nonsense. And I thought you were overly emotional, flighty and undisciplined."

"Uh … thanks?" Tootie said uncertainly.

"Seeing you in that play the other night," Pauline continued, "and meeting your housemates and friends, well, when I am wrong, I have the fortitude to admit that I was wrong." Pauline flashed one of her rare smiles. "Dorothy, what you do is amazing. It clearly takes incredible thought and precision and discipline. If you decide to pursue the theater as a craft, you can count on my support – as long as you can commit to treating it as seriously as you would medical school or the law."

"You can count on it," said Tootie. She crushed her mother in an enormous hug.

Pauline dabbed at her eyes. "There seems to be, ah, quite a lot of dust in here," she complained.

"I'm thankful that I met Edna Garrett," said Drake. He put an arm around the plump redhead's shoulders. "She is the best cook that I have ever met, and one of the finest – and feistiest – people." Mrs. Garrett kissed his cheek. "I predict big success for 'Edna's Edibles'. But whether the show succeeds or fails, I plan to be right here by her side."

Everyone applauded. Alec whistled through his fingers.

"Hey," said Jo, "do you mean literally by her side? Cause if you plan on movin in here, we gotta talk rent, Drake."

"Not now," whispered Blair, nudging Jo gently in the side.

Jo scowled, but fell silent.

Rose noticed the exchange. Her little frisson of unease returned. Of course it was the wrong moment for Jo to bring up rent, and Blair was right to tell her, but the way they acted together, so connected, so … intimate … Rose shivered.

"I'm thankful for my new beau," Mrs. Garrett said, kissing Drake on the cheek again. "And I'm thankful to be living in this beautiful old house, and cooking in that glorious kitchen. But mainly I'm thankful for my girls. Jo, Blair, Natalie, Tootie – you are the joy of my middle ages."

"Right back at you, Mrs. G," said Jo, her eyes wet.

"And I want to propose my own little toast," said Mrs. Garrett, "to the mothers who raised these amazing young women. Mrs. Green, Justice Ramsey, Mrs. Warner, Mrs. Polniaczek," Mrs. Garrett raised her glass to each woman in turn. "Being a mother is probably the most difficult, but most rewarding job in the world. It's heartbreak, but it's triumph too. You for can take a lot of pride in your daughters."

"Very dusty in here," muttered Pauline, dabbing her eyes again.

"What about grandmothers?" joked Mona Green. "What – we're chopped liver?"

"And what about fathers?" laughed Sy.

"To parents, then," said Mrs. Garrett, "and grandparents. To the people who raise us."

"Too right!" said Jacqueline, thinking of her own parents, trying to save their marriage at a little bed-and-breakfast in the Scottish highlands.

Monica Warner stood up.

She looked a little wobbly on her pins. Alec, always keeping at least one eye on Blair's unpredictable, troublemaking mother, moved to her side and put a hand under her elbow.

"Steady on, Mrs. Warner," he said cheerfully. "Feeling well?"

"I feel wonderful!" she said, flashing a brilliant smile.

"Not too wonderful, I hope," he chuckled. Please, he thought, don't let the old harridan ruin this night.

"I'd like to make a toast," she said.

Oh, God blind me! he thought. Here it comes.

Everyone had fallen quiet.

Jo and Blair tensed; Rose noticed that, and how Jo and Blair moved subtly, almost invisibly closer together.

Monica raised her glass. "I want to toast all the single mothers here. That's me. And Rose. Rose – here's to you."

Rose blushed as all eyes turned to her for a moment. She smiled a shy, crooked little smile.

"It isn't easy being a single mother," Monica continued, slurring a little.

I don't think I've ever seen her this drunk, thought Blair.

"It's difficult, sometimes, making the right choices," said Monica. "You're all alone. You have to do everything for your child, all alone."

Sure mother, thought Blair, just you, and an army of servants, and the nannies, and the camp counselors, and the ranch staff, and Mrs. Garrett, and Eduardo, and James, and Mrs. Pip – just you and dozens of others!

"But we persevere," said Monica. She raised her glass toward Rose again. "We get through it, don't we Rose? And we make sacrifices. But it's worth it, when our children are old enough to make the smart decisions, the right decisions."

Here it bloody comes! thought Alec. How upset would Blair be if I coshed Monica with that glass doorstop just now? I mean, if I didn't do it too hard?

"So, Mrs. Warner – what is it you're thankful for?" prompted Mona Green. The little old lady's eyes were bright, her cheeks pink with indignation. Her bullshit alarm was ringing loudly, louder with every word Monica spoke.

What a dashed wonderful little granny! Alec though admiringly.

"I'm thankful," Monica said, a little thrown by Mona's interjection, "for my daughter. I just wish that she –"

"Here's to Blair!" Mona Green said cheerfully, lifting her cup of hot water and lemon.

"To Blair!" everyone said, toasting the beautiful blonde.

"Let's freshen you drink," Alec said soothingly to Monica, leading her gently toward the bar, away from the guests. "And let's drop a tablet of Alka-Seltzer into the mix."

"I had, I wasn't finished," Monica muttered. "I have more to say."

"Say it to me," Alec suggested. "I'm all ears. But whisper, so we don't disturb the others."

"Blair should marry you," whispered Monica. "Why doesn't she understand that?"

"There, there," said Alec. "Not everyone has your impeccable taste, my dear. Now, what were you drinking? A Manhattan, I think? Let's get you all fixed up …"

Blair wanted someone, anyone, to draw attention away from her mother. Who hadn't spoken yet?

"Boots," said Blair. "What are you thankful for this year?"

Boots scowled at her. "I'm thankful that I have my Gamma Gamma sisters," she said pointedly. "I'm thankful that I'm not too proud to join a sorority."

Son … of … a … bitch, thought Blair. She smiled tightly. "Gamma Gamma is Langley's premiere sorority," Blair said brightly.

"Then why won't you join?" Boots demanded.

"Sororities aren't for everyone," Blair said pleasantly. "But to be Gamma Gamma's president – you have a lot to be proud of Boots, as well as thankful."

"Don't placate me!"

"I'm not –"

"Yes, you are!"

So, thought Rose, sipping her Coke, I'm not the only one immune to Blair Warner's charm!

Bloody hell, now what? thought Alec, hearing the commotion between Boots and Blair as he was handing Monica her drink.

"You think you're better than everyone else, Blair Warner! You think you're too good for any of the sororities, even Gamma Gamma. So you started your own little sorority."

"This is not a sorority," said Blair.

"Isn't it?"

"Girls, girls, this is a time for being thankful," said Mrs. Garrett. "Boots, do you have something that you're thankful for that doesn't involve insulting your hostess?"

Boots turned her attention to Jo. Her face softened. "I'm glad that Jo is alive," she said. She glared at Blair. "No thanks to you! You almost got her killed!"

Note to self, thought Jo, no more open mic nights at River Rock. Guests will be gagged as soon as they enter the house.

"What do you mean?" blurted Rose. This was the second time she'd heard references to Jo's life being in danger.

"Jo didn't tell you?" asked Boots. "That's just like her – she's so modest."

"Didn't tell me what?" Rose demanded.

"It was nothing, Ma," said Jo.

"Nothing?" Boots said incredulously. "It was unbelievably brave! A hit man tried to kill Blair at Petal's Halloween party."

"What?" Rose shouted.

"Jo stopped him," Boots continued. "She risked her life for Blair's. Jo got all cut and bruised and icky –"

"I got hurt too," said Blair. "And there is no eye shadow that goes with a bruise that purple."

"I was in the bloody hospital!" Alec chimed in.

"For, like, half a day," said Jo, trying to play it down.

"I had to stay overnight," he insisted. "I had to eat Jell-O!"

"But then you were fine," Jo countered. "Right?"

Jo glared at Alec and then at Blair and then at Alec again. It dawned on them that they were supposed to be helping Jo to play down the danger, at least in front of Rose.

"Just a scratch, really," said Alec. He yawned.

"Just a few bruises," Blair said lamely.

"You were all mangled," said Boots. "Especially Jo. Protecting Miss Perfect Warner!"

"It was all blown out of proportion," Monica Warner said, taking a deep drink of her Manhattan.

"Your daughter was almost killed, and it was 'blown out of proportion'?" Rose demanded, stunned.

"Warners receive death threats," Monica said dismissively. "It happens. You wouldn't understand, dear. Rarely does anyone act on them. But my ex-husband rather put one over on the Abercrombies. To put it bluntly, he ruined them. So they hired a nasty man to kill Blair –"

"To kill her?" asked Rose.

"Strictly speaking, yes," said Monica. "But Alec was there and he saved her."

"Jo saved me!" flared Blair.

"With my help," Alec insisted.

Jo groaned. Thanks guys … you're really containin the situation.

"You don't deserve Jo," Boots said to Blair. "You're just a spoiled, self-centered –"

"Oh, I'm spoiled and self-centered?" Blair had had just about enough of Boots St. Clair. "Who had her portrait painted by Andy Warhol, and hung it up in her room?"

"My parents arranged that!" shouted Boots. "It was for my birthday!"

"Well, you look awful in it!"

Boots gasped. "You take that back!"

Blair folded her arms across her chest.

"I said take that back, Warner!"

"No."

Boots flew across the room toward Blair, fingers flexed as if she intended to claw Blair's eyes out.

Jo stepped in front of Blair, put one hand on Boots' waist, pinned Boots' wrists with the other hand.

"She doesn't deserve you," sobbed Boots.

Jo maneuvered Boots into a chair, pushed her down into it.

"Boots, kiddo, I don't know what's short-circuitin with you tonight, but you gotta put a lid on it, or you're out in the snow."

"But –"

"Boots! I ain't kiddin here."

"Then I'm out in the snow!" Boots ran to one of the doors, sobbing, and wrenched it open. Her high heeled boots clattered on the hardwood floors.

Jo sighed. "Alec?"

"On it," he said, following Boots down the hall.

"Let her go," said Monica, waving her drink. "The St. Clairs have always been mad as hatters!"

"She's a guest in my house," Jo said, a steely edge to her voice. "Besides which … she just headed for the kitchen, not the front door."

"Your house," laughed Monica. This little upstart is really becoming too much! "I see. Your house."

"Jo's on the lease with me," Blair said in a stony voice.

"And she's paying an equal share, I'm sure," said Monica.

"She's paying a fair share," said Blair.

"Whatever she makes selling stolen car parts, no doubt."

"Now just a damn minute!" shouted Rose, standing up. "Don't you dare talk to my daughter that way!"

"Hoo boy," said Natalie. She squeezed Belmont's hand. "I'm glad my father's a doctor. Because somebody's going to need one in a minute!"

Monica laughed. "Don't even pretend to be outraged, Rose. You're sitting pretty, aren't you? Your daughter's got her greasy little claws dug into one of the wealthiest old families in the world."

"You're so crass, mother," said Blair. "And you're drunk."

"Well, you'll just have to put up with me, won't you? I'm not going out into the snow. Your allowance pays for this place, and I pay your allowance."

"The Chase Manhattan Bank pays my allowance," Blair said, angry tears stinging her eyes. Why is mother doing this? She's never been this outrageous before. Not even at the Plaza. "My allowance comes from the special trust fund grandfather set up for me. It's the only money that really is mine until I'm twenty-one."

"Well, well, well. Look who's been doing her homework. You've never wondered before where your money came from. Or how much you have." Monica glared meaningfully at Jo. "Have you been encouraging Blair to catalog her assets?"

"Blair could be runnin around in a pickle barrel with suspenders," Jo shrugged. "I don't give a damn what she has or what she ain't got."

"Oh, no doubt." Monica's laugh was ugly. She turned to Blair, squinting.

She's so drunk! thought Blair.

"I didn't mind this little friendship when you were pals at Eastland," Monica told Blair. "And even now, if you want to play Henry Higgins to this little flower girl, if you want to help her clean herself up a bit, I don't object. But you cannot become so focused on your, on your friends that you neglect your future. Alec is your future – or someone like him. All this time with your friends, especially that little parasite –"

SLAP!

Rose Polniaczek had struck Monica, a stinging, open-handed blow across her face.

Monica reeled back.

Sy and Belmont, leaping up, managed to snag Monica's elbows before she went down ass over teakettle.

Monica stood up straight, rearing her beautiful head. Sy and Belmont kept a grip on her arms, not so much to steady her now as to keep her from flying at Rose.

"How dare you?" Monica demanded of Rose.

"Don't you ever talk about my daughter that way again," Rose said firmly.

"I'll have the police out here," seethed Monica. "I'll have you thrown in the filthy little Peekskill jail!"

"It's actually surprisingly clean," said Natalie. "Not very comfortable, though."

"There won't be any police," Justice Ramsey said calmly.

"She assaulted me," hissed Monica.

"And about damn time," said Justice Ramsey. She slipped her dark-rimmed glasses on, gazed at Monica with all the stern majesty of her judicial office. "If you do not calm down, Mrs. Warner, I will have you charged with drunk and disorderly conduct and inciting a riot."

"Riot? What riot?"

"The riot of my foot connecting with your bony behind."

Monica gaped.

Natalie stifled a laugh. "Your mom is so cool," she whispered to Tootie. "Who knew?"

"I know," whispered Tootie. "Right?"

"Don't forget my foot," Mona Green said with spirit. "It might be old, but it's sure!"

"I've got a rolling pin in the kitchen," said Mrs. Garrett.

"And if you need a witness," drawled Petal, "the Von Schuylkill name counts for something around these parts."

Monica glared at Petal. "You want to be careful, Miss Von Schuylkill. You don't want to start something that your parents will have to finish. The Von Schuylkills and the Warners have been friendly for a long time."

Petal shrugged eloquently. "When it comes to matters of principle, my parents insist that I go my own way," she said.

"Count me in," said Portia.

"And me," said Jacqueline.

"You!" spat Monica. "Of course they can count you in, Lady Angledun! Congratulations, dear. Getting your hooks into Lord Nethridge. He loves Blair! Why did you have to interfere?"

Alec strolled in, noshing on a buttermilk biscuit. "Boots is lying down," he said. "Now, let me tell you what I'm thankful for –"

He broke off, observing the dramatic tableau before him, everyone either rapt or outraged, Sy and Belmont holding a feral-looking Monica by the arms.

Monica still had a bright red handprint on her face, and given Rose's proximity, Alec had a fair idea how she'd come by it. Guess the Jo-apple doesn't fall far from the tree, he mused.

"So … what did I miss?" he asked. "Or do I want to know?"

Monica turned to him, almost pathetically appealing.

"You love Blair, don't you?"

Alec sighed.

"Mrs. Warner –"

"You love her! I know you do!"

"Mrs. Warner –"

"Monica, call me Monica!"

"Mrs. Warner, I do love Blair. And Jo. And Nat and Tootie, when it comes down to it. But I'm in love with Jacqueline." He took Jacqueline's arm; she leaned her sleek head against his shoulder.

Monica started to cry. It was a ghastly sight. Her mascara didn't run – it never did; it was a special brand she picked up on her trips to Hong Kong. But the tears cut channels through her thick foundation, and her throat worked in an alarming manner.

Jo stepped forward, slowly, eyes damp with compassionate tears.

"Look, this all just got outta hand. Monica, if you wanna go lie down or something, we can fix up a room for you –"

Monica laughed. There was an edge of hysteria to it.

"Oh – you'll fix me a room, will you? Grand lady of the manor, aren't you?"

"Mother," Blair said warningly.

"Don't 'mother' me! Crueler than a serpent's tooth! You're a viper, Blair."

Jo's eyes went flinty. "On second thought, I think I'll call James," Jo said. "You might be more comfortable in your own home tonight."

"Oh – you'll call James. Who the hell do you think you are? Some little guttersnipe from the trash heaps of the Bronx! What is this hold you have over my daughter? She never kept low company until you came along. She always did her duty. You've got head, her priorities all turned around, you, you Rasputin!"

Blair stormed across the room to Jo's side, linked her arm through Jo's.

"Don't say things you can't take back, mother."

"Why would I want to take them back? Everything I say is true. You should be in Gamma Gamma, like the little St. Clair bitch said. You should be engaged to Alec. Instead you're opening a halfway house for every common stray that crosses your path."

"I'm going to need a read-back on that," Justice Ramsey said menacingly. "Did she say 'common stray'?"

"I do believe she did," said Natalie.

"I can confirm that," said Tootie.

"That's not what I meant," objected Monica. "I didn't mean … that. But Blair has a certain social circle, and she's falling away from it."

"She ain't fallin away from it," said Jo. "She transcends it."

"Not from where I stand," Monica said disdainfully. She put a hand to her head. I need another drink. This is all going so badly … It's worse than the Plaza. But if I can just make Blair understand where her true duty lies, and her true happiness …

The room swam around Monica. She keeled backward, but Sy and Belmont still held her arms, and were able to ease her onto a divan.

Sy pressed his fingers to Monica's wrist, his ear against her chest.

"Unhand me," she muttered. "You, you lousy, you …"

"Yes, yes," he said good-naturedly. "I think I know what you're trying to say, Mrs. Warner." He looked at Blair. "Her pulse is a little thready, her heart beat's a little slow. You want to get her into bed for a good rest."

Alec swept Monica into his arms as easily as if she were a child. Monica closed her eyes. "Unhand me," she said feebly.

Alec raised his eyebrows interrogatively, looking to Blair and Jo for direction.

"The Grey Room," Blair said decisively. She glanced at Jo. "I want to be near her tonight. In case she needs anything."

Jo nodded. "Of course."

So strange, mused Rose. It was as if … as if Blair were asking for Jo's permission. What's between these two? They're both on the lease, and they run this house as if they're, as if … She couldn't complete the thought, because beyond the thought there was only a dark and impenetrable abyss, the pit of hell.

Blair took a deep breath, addressed the assembled guests. "This was not the way we wanted Thanksgiving to end. Obviously. My mother has been under a lot of strain lately. If you would be so kind as to wait until we have her settled, we'd like to conclude the night on a happier note."

A general murmuring of assent, "Of course," "No need to ask," "We understand," etc.

Alec left the room, cradling Monica in his arms. Her eyes were open, but glassy, and she was starting to snore. Dr. Green was right on their heels, followed by Blair and Jo.

"Someday," Natalie said, "we'll attend a party where no one needs medical attention."

"Do you think so?" asked Tootie.

"No. But it's a dream."

As the door swung shut, Blair took Jo's hand, squeezed it hard.

No one in the drawing room saw the gesture, except for Rose.


"Now, far be it from me to be unkind," said Natalie, "but Monica Warner leaving a room is like the Wicked Witch melting into a puddle. Am I wrong? Who else feels like singing 'Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead'?"

"'Which old witch?'" sang Tootie.

"'The wicked witch!'" sang Natalie.

"That's about enough of that," said Mrs. Garrett. "In Blair and Jo's absence, we are the hostesses, and that means a certain amount of dignity and decorum." She addressed the room. "We apologize for the drama, everybody, but you know how Thanksgiving can be. Sometimes it's an opportunity to be thankful and sometimes it's an opportunity to, well –"

"Get tanked up and let it fly!" said Tootie.

"Dorothy," Pauline said warningly.

"Tootie," chided Mrs. Garrett.

"What? I just tell it like it is."

"We know how it is," said Mrs. Garrett. "We need something fun to do to get everyone back in a festive mood, back to the way it was."

"Frankly, I love musketeer drama," said Portia. "It distracts me from my own tame existence."

"You five always seem to be having a ripping time," said Jacqueline.

"Never a dull moment," Petal agreed.

"What are you saying?" Natalie deadpanned. "We're just as normal and homespun as the Waltons."

"Or the Ingalls," said Tootie. "By the way, Nat – how are our crops doing this season?"

"I thought we had a lumber mill?"

Tootie snapped her fingers. "That's it!" She clapped her hands for attention. "Now hear this, gang – Get ready to play 'What Character Am I?' You can be any character from the movies or television."

"What about radio?" asked Mona.

"Of course! Radio counts too. Everybody pick a character, and then when it's your turn everybody plays twenty questions to try to figure out who you are. Sound fun?"

"Sounds smashing!" said Jacqueline.

"Count me in," said Alec, entering the room alone.

"Where are Blair and Jo?" asked Natalie. "And my Dad?"

"Dr. Green will be down once the, er, patient is sedated. Blair and Jo are going to sit with her."

"So, OK, we'll start as soon as Dr. Green is back," said Tootie. "Everybody start thinking of what character you're going to be. And you won't just answer questions about them, you have to kind of try to become them, like, how you're sitting, your accent – you know?"

Mona Green rubbed her hands together excitedly. "Oh, I've got a peach of a character!"

"What do you think?" Mrs. Garrett asked Rose gently. "Do you know who you're going to be?"

Rose had the strangest look on her face. Her eyes were wide but unfocused, and she was very pale. Mrs. Garrett had seen that look before, as a nurse. It was shock. Is it just the tension of this whole evening, wondered Mrs. Garrett, or did she catch a glimpse of the love between Jo and Blair?

Rose was silent. It was as if she hadn't heard Mrs. Garrett at all.

"Rose? Would you like a cup of tea?" Tea with a lot of sugar; that was good for shock.

"Um, sure," Rose said. "Tea."

"Before we get started," Alec said, holding up his hands for everyone to be silent, "I didn't have a chance to say what I'm thankful for. In the last few months, I've met all these opinionated, powerful, bossy, beautiful women. Who knew there were so many in the world? And my life has never been so upside down … and it's never been so rich. It's been said that in a cold world, you need your friends to keep you warm."

"Boo!" called Natalie. "You stole that from 'The Big Chill'."

"See? That's exactly what I mean," said Alec. "These strong, fearless women just keep a chap on his toes and don't let him get away with a blasted thing. So Mrs. Garrett, and Blair and Jo, and Natalie, and Tootie, and of course, my dear Jacqueline, and all the other strong women in this room, I just want to thank you for giving me assorted kicks in the bum, and for saving me from chipmunks." He lifted his glass. "Cheers!"

"Cheers!" everyone said.

Mona leaned toward Natalie. "Did he say 'chipmunks'?" she whispered.

"Yes, Grandma. It's kind of a funny story. See, Alec came running into the kitchen ..."


Monica's nose whistled when she slept … Just like Blair's.

Jo learned this interesting fact sitting in the Grey Room, up near the top and the back of the house, not far from Jo and Blair's suite.

Monica lay under the warm sheets and blankets, sleeping the sleep of the just following an injection of some sort of mild sedative by Dr. Green.

"She'll be fine in the morning," said Dr. Green, "except for a hangover, of course. That will be lulu. And the embarrassment factor, depending on what she remembers." He touched Blair's face in a fatherly way. "It's not my business, Blair, but you've been a good friend to Natalie. She speaks very highly of you. Let me tell you as a parent that parents aren't perfect. But they love. They love. You didn't deserve that scene downstairs, but I hope you'll show your mother a little mercy."

"Of course," said Blair, her voice catching in her throat. "I mean, she's my mother."

After Dr. Green went back downstairs, they sat with Monica while she slept. Monica's nose whistled, but she remained completely unconscious.

"She looks awful," Blair whispered. The thick makeup, gashed and smeared by tears, looked like a kabuki mask in the dim light.

Blair soaked a wash cloth in the adjacent bathroom and then carefully washed off her mother's makeup, the foundation, the mascara, the eyeliner, the lipstick, the blush.

When Blair was finished, her mother's face looked naked, but not old. It looked vulnerable, a child's face. When Blair went into the bathroom and rinsed out the washcloth, she felt tears running down her cheeks. She began sobbing.

"I know, babe," Jo said quietly. She stood behind Blair, gentle hands resting on Blair's trembling shoulders. "Let it out."

Blair dropped the damp washcloth in the basin. She turned, put her arms around Jo's neck. Jo pulled Blair to her, let Blair bury her face against Jo's shoulder and sob and sob. Jo stroked Blair's back soothingly. She let Blair cry herself out. "It's OK," Jo whispered from time to time. "It's gonna be OK, babe. Don't worry."

Blair wasn't sure exactly why she was crying. It was partly because everything had been so beautiful, and then … her mother always seemed to ruin things. It was partly because no matter how horrible her mother could be, Blair still loved her.

When Blair had cried herself out, she washed her own face in the sink, washed her own makeup off. I look sixteen, she thought. I'm still such a kid.

"Ain't you gonna put another face on?" asked Jo.

Blair shook her head. "I'm not going down again tonight. I can't … face anybody right now. Literally." She smiled ruefully. "Most everyone is sleeping over, so I'll see them at breakfast."

"Whatever you want," said Jo. She kissed Blair's cheek. "I gotta talk to my Ma before I go to sleep. Make sure she's OK. I'm sorry she hit your mother."

"I'm not. Mother had it coming. Jo, I'm sorry she said those terrible things to you! I had no idea she felt that strongly. I thought she was warming up to you."

"About as much as my Ma seems to be warming up to you," Jo said sadly.

"Hey." Blair hugged Jo tightly. "It doesn't matter. I mean, it does, so much, but we can't lose sight of the big thing that matters. I love you. And you love me."

"That I do," Jo agreed. She dropped a kiss on the top of Blair's head. "Things ain't lookin too good, Blondie. Sounds like you're mom's about an inch from cuttin you off."

"I think she is."

"And my Ma might be startin to figure some things out."

"Did she say anything?"

"No. Call it a hunch. She had some really fun things to say last night, about hell. And she was looking at us tonight like, well, like things are finally starting to click in her innocent mind."

"Do we just … tell them?" wondered Blair. "I mean, why not? They're already pissed off at us, fighting like fishwives, and they don't even officially know we're together."

"What about …" Jo pulled Blair tight against her; she couldn't even stand the thought. "If your parents try to lock you up somewhere? Babe, I know how much that possibility scares you."

"You know what? Let them frigging try!" she said stoutly. "What?"

Jo was smiling. "Nothing, just … you said 'friggin'."

"Well, that's what I meant! Let my parents frigging try to lock me up. I have a feeling that between you and Mrs. Garrett and the Von Schuylkills and Justice Ramsey, you'd get me out of the asylum PDQ."

"Damn straight!" said Jo. "And if we couldn't get you out by legal means, me and Alec and Moose would rip the bars off the windows!"

"So … we tell them?" asked Blair.

Jo took a deep breath. She started to speak, then took another deep breath.

"I know," Blair said kindly. "She's your Ma. If you're not ready yet –"

"I don't think I'll ever be ready. But if we're gonna tell one, we gotta tell both." Jo pulled one hand away from Blair's waist, fervently made the sign of the cross.

"Do you think he's listening to us?" Blair asked curiously.

Jo glanced toward the bathroom door, as if looking for an eavesdropper. "Who?"

"God, Jo. Do you think he's listening?"

"I know He's listenin," said Jo. "And you know what? He's got our backs. Cause how else could two totally different people like us find each other? How could we get up the nerve to, to tell each other how we feel? And how could we still be together?"

"You think it's –" Blair looked up at the ceiling.

"Yeah. Him and about a platoon's worth of guardian angels! You know what it takes to get through this thick skull of mine?"

Blair laughed. She buried her face in Jo's long dark hair. "Yes, Polniaczek. I have some familiarity with trying to get concepts through that thick skull. So. We're going to tell them?"

"Yeah."

"Breakfast tomorrow?"

"You tell your Ma tomorrow morning. I don't think she's in any shape to get news like this tonight, even if she does wake up. But my Ma … I have a feelin she's gonna wanna talk tonight."

"If you need me, get me."

"Thanks, babe." Jo stroked Blair's hair. "Just think … if your mother cuts off your money, I get to see what color all this hair really is."

"Jo!"

"Cause, you won't be able to afford however much it is to go the salon, right?"

"Jo Polniaczek, I am a natural blonde!"

"Sure, babe. Whatever you say."

"Just because my, just because the, ah, carpet doesn't exactly match the drapes. That doesn't mean I'm not really blonde."

"I said, 'whatever you say'. Lots of natural blondes have dark roots and dark eyebrows. Right?"

Blair slipped her hands around Jo's throat, pretended to choke her. "I'll prove it to you someday, Polniaczek. We should set a wager."

"OK by me. I'll bet you a million dollars that you're not a natural blonde. Blondie."

"I'll take that bet!" Blair's mock-choking motions became caresses as she leaned forward and kissed Jo longingly. "I love you. I love you, I love you, I love you, Jo."

"Love you forever and back, babe."


It was one am when Rose knocked on the door of Jo and Blair's suite.

Jo answered in her dark blue silk pajamas, her ancient history text book in her hand. There was a fire crackling in the sitting room hearth, and a carafe of cocoa and two cups on the coffee table.

"Come on in, Ma," Jo said warmly. She sat on one end of the sofa, gestured politely for Rose to sit down next to her.

"Studying this late?" asked Rose, glancing at the book.

"Takes a lot of work to get a 3.9," said Jo. "Most spare minutes, I got a book open."

Jo poured out a cup of cocoa for herself, a cup for her mother.

"Thanks," said Rose. She blew on the cocoa, took a sip. "Ow. I always do that. I blow on the cocoa, but then I burn myself anyway."

"Me too," laughed Jo.

Rose blew on her cocoa again, took another sip. "Alec told me where to find you," she said. She looked around. "It's nice. Cozy. It's like …"

"Like bein in a little sailin ship," said Jo.

"Yes. That's it exactly, Jo." Rose sipped her cocoa again. "Jo, there are some things I never brought up with you because I didn't want to put ideas into your head. There's a lot of darkness in the world."

Jo sighed. "Ma –"

"Please, Joanne Marie. Let me get through this." Rose closed her eyes for a few seconds, collecting her thoughts and her courage. "When I was a kid, I went to Sisters of Eternal Peace on Arthur Avenue. The nuns back then, well, you think they was, were, tough on you, sheesh! Back then they could smack you around however they wanted. And if you told your folks, your folks asked you what you did to get the nuns so upset!"

"I'll bet you never got hit, Ma."

"Once. Just once. I dropped some books on my foot and it hurt and I said a choice expression that my father used sometimes. The nun walloped me for it. And I never said it again." She swallowed. "I had this friend, Jo, little Irish girl, Peggy Winkle O'Meara."

"Peggy Winkle O'Meara – you sure she was Irish, Ma?" teased Jo.

"My parents didn't like me being friends with her. They had a thing about the Irish, well, most Italians did back then, and the Polish too. See, that never made sense to me. It always seemed to me, God is looking at what we do, not where we come from."

"I know that about you, Ma," Jo said seriously. "I admire that about you."

"Well, it's not like I'm a saint or anything," said Rose. "But Peggy was my friend, and I didn't care if she was Irish or Lithuanian or Martian or what. So we go along, a lot of years, we're real good pals, and then one day, when we're about thirteen, she tries to kiss me." Rose blushed at the memory.

Jo's breath caught in her throat. "Holy, uh, holy heck," Jo said softly. "What the, uh, heck did you do?"

"I cried," said Rose. And her eyes welled up now, just thinking about it years later. "I cried so hard, Jo. Because it felt very strange to me. It felt wrong. And the nuns had told us, you know, they didn't spell it out in black and white, but it was clear that girls went with boys, and they got married, and that was it. Boys don't go with boys. Girls don't go with girls."

"How did you work it out?" asked Jo.

"Oh, I never told nobody, I mean, anybody," said Rose.

"But, I mean, how did you work it out with Peggy?" Jo asked curiously.

Rose wiped her eyes with the back of her sleeve. "There was nothing to work out. It's a sin, Jo. It was a sin then and it's a sin now. I never spoke to Peggy again."

Jo hung her head. She took a deep breath.

It's a sin, Jo. It was a sin then and it's a sin now …

"I know why you're doing that," Rose said quietly. "I know why you're hanging your head, Joanne Marie. Maybe I'm not the brightest light bulb in the chandelier, but I figured it out tonight."

"I thought maybe you did," said Jo.

"That Warner girl is like Peggy was," said Rose. "Don't deny it, Jo, cause I saw her taking your arm tonight, I saw her taking your hand when you left the room together."

"I'm … not denying it," said Jo, looking down at her cocoa cup.

"That's why her mother is acting all nutty, trying to get Blair hitched to someone. That's why she went cuckoo tonight, seeing Alec rejecting Blair." Rose shook her head. "I really do feel bad for slapping Mrs. Warner. That wasn't a Christian thing to do. And she must be so worried about her daughter. She must be half out of her mind."

"Monica is, and always has been, all about Monica," Jo said quietly.

"Maybe that's why, maybe that's what made Blair the way she is," said Rose. "I'm not saying I don't feel some compassion for the Warner girl. I'm not a kid any more. I can be more merciful than I was to Peggy. But Jo, I can't have you spending any more time around her. Do you understand? She's trying to corrupt you. And for some reason – maybe because you have such a kind heart, maybe because you're so loyal, maybe because this fancy life can be so seductive – you're letting her."

Jo drank some cocoa, leaned back against the sofa. Now she needed to collect her thoughts. Her heart was hammering in her chest.

How can I explain it so it makes sense to her? So that it will be real to her?

In the end, she just said it.

"I love her, Ma."

Rose put a hand over her face. "Jo … You don't mean that. It's a sin."

"Love isn't a sin, Ma."

"But this isn't … love." Rose put her other hand over her face. "Jo. Jo, I can't even look at you right now. Whatever you've done, you have to put a stop to it now. You have to go to confession with Father Kowalski, you need to get right with God again."

"Ma … Look at me."

"I can't Jo."

"Ma."

Rose slowly lowered her hands. She was crying. She looked at Jo a little fearfully, as if Jo were some strange creature.

"What do you see, Ma?"

Rose saw her daughter, looking more beautiful, more serene, more confident than she'd ever seen her look before.

"Am I evil, Ma?" Jo asked gently.

Rose looked away.

"Evil can wear many guises," she said. "And I'm not saying you're evil. But the act, oh, the act is evil, Joanne Marie."

Jo put her cocoa cup on the coffee table. She took her mother's cup, and did the same. Jo stood, and pointed to the darkened room opening off of the sitting room.

"This isn't my suite, Ma," she said patiently. "I share it with Blair."

Rose put her hands over her ears, closed her eyes. "I don't wanna hear it, Jo! I don't wanna see it."

"That's our bedroom in there," said Jo. "And our bath. I asked Blair to marry me."

"Jo, that's crazy! It's so wrong, and so crazy! How has that girl corrupted you?"

"She'll be the makin of me, Ma. And I'll be the makin of her. I'm going to spend the rest of my life with her. I love Blair Warner. And she loves me."

Rose uncovered her ears. She opened her eyes. Trembling, she stood.

"I feel sick," she said.

Jo nodded. Tears slipped down her face.

"I was afraid you kinda might feel that way."

"Jo, I need to leave here. Right now. I feel … it's like it's darkness all around me."

Jo nodded again. She went to the black Princess telephone hanging in a little nook, lifted the receiver, dialed a number. "Yeah. Thanks for standin by. Take her back right now, will ya? Thanks."

"Who was that?" Rose demanded. "I won't be driven anywhere by that girl's chauffeur. I just couldn't!"

"I didn't call James," Jo said numbly. "I called Alec's room. He promised to wait up in case I needed him."

"Then Alec knows? Is that why he left Blair?"

"Everybody knows," Jo said wearily. "Almost everybody." She ran a hand through her hair.

"Oh, everybody? Mrs. Garrett knows? Natalie and Tootie know? What about their parents?"

"I think Nat's gram figured it out. She's a smart old bird."

"So, stupid Rose, naïve Rose, she's the only one not invited to the party!"

"I've wanted to tell you," Jo said, "a million times. But I was afraid you'd take it like you're taking it."

"We're talking about your soul, Jo! How am I supposed to take it?"

"Our door is always open to you," said Jo, "if you can ever accept us. "As long as we have a door. Which probably won't be much longer. Blair's tellin her mother too."

"This is nuts!" said Rose. "Why doesn't she listen to her mother? Why don't you listen to me?"

Jo's throat constricted. She was too broken-hearted to speak. She darted forward, gave her mother a quick hug, then darted away.

There was a knock on the door, three soft raps. Jo opened it.

Alec stood there in a jet-black Burberry coat over his pajamas, his hair a bit wild.

"You have … enough gas in the coupe?" Jo managed in a strangled voice.

"Of course." He put his arm around Jo's shoulders, hugged her fiercely. "And if I run out of petrol, I can always find a service station near the Fever. Right? Big British bloke in his pajamas and his fancy little coupe, not hardly a target in the wee hours, eh?"

Jo laughed and sobbed at the same time. Alec hugged her again. "That's right, Princess, stiff upper lip."

It broke Rose's heart, watching this little exchange. They were such good kids. If only they'd listen to someone who knew, if only they'd do what God wanted …

"Jo –" Rose said, but Jo shook her head vehemently. Jo held up her hands and backed away, disappearing into the dark bedroom.

"Jo asked me, if she lost the power of speech, which she does when she's very upset, to tell you that she loves you very much," said Alec. "You are her 'Ma' and she's sorry that you're disappointed. But she loves Blair. And that's final."

Alec guided Rose out of the sitting room, into the hallway. He guided her down a narrow back staircase.

"If you want my advice – though doubtless you don't – you should try to accept those two. It's true love, Mrs. Polniaczek. It's crazy, beautiful, impossible, divine love."

Rose felt like she was in a daze. On the ground floor, Alec handed Rose her gloves and hat and coat, everything she'd arrived with, including her little blue overnight bag.

She followed him outside, to the garage, in front of which his little coupe sat under a faint dusting of snow. He scraped off the windshield and the windows. He unlocked the car and settled Rose in the front passenger seat.

"Try to accept them," he said again, encouragingly, as they drove south toward the city. "I've never seen such a beautiful, pure romance. Take it from someone who tried very hard to scuttle it! They are meant to be together. I only hope Jacqueline and I will be half as happy."

He flicked on the turn signal, made a smooth right turn.

"We went to see 'Terms of Endearment' today, Jack and me," he said. "Now that's a picture about mums! Called the mater as soon as it was over. Don't mind telling you I was sobbing like a baby! Children and their mothers … sacred, and all that. There must be a way for you and Jo to patch it up."

Rose cleared her throat. Alec had turned on the coupe's heater, but the tip of Rose's nose was numb. She pulled her knit scarf up around the bottom half of her face.

"Lord Nethridge?" she said through the fabric.

"Yes, Mrs. Polniaczek?"

"I've never hit a Lord before. But if you talk about my Jo, or the Warner girl, one more time, I will slap you into next Sunday."

"Very good, Mrs. Polniaczek."

So damned tragic, he thought. So damned sad. All the same … He grinned. 'Slap you into next Sunday'? Yes, this is Jo's mater!


When Monica woke the next morning, she felt strangely rested, as if she'd just had an extensive massage. She stretched languidly. That's when her head started pounding.

"Oh … my aching head," she moaned.

"Try some of this," said a kind voice.

Could that be … Blair? Sounding so sweet? After, well, all that had transpired the night before? Slivers of the previous evening began piercing Monica's foggy mental state, fragments of memories. Did I really say that? Did I really do that? And did that Polniaczek woman actually slap me?

Monica sipped the sweet tea that was offered to her. It was hot and bracing and thick with sugar.

Yes, it was Blair sitting on the chair next to Monica's bed. Looking so … young. Not a stitch of makeup, her hair loose and long like a little girl's.

She's contrite, Monica thought hopefully. She's seen the error of her ways!

Monica drained the tea cup, set it down on its saucer with a rattle.

"Are you fully conscious mother?"

"Yes, dear."

"Good. Because I've been thinking, while I sat here all night. And I have something to tell you."

She's going back to Alec! She's going back to him! Monica thought triumphantly.

"I want you to cut me off," said Blair.

Monica waited. The statement was incredible. Surely it was a joke … or, at least, there must be more to follow.

Blair said nothing. She was smiling so peacefully, sitting so serenely in that damned chair.

"I, ah, don't think I heard you correctly, dear," said Monica.

"Oh. Sorry. I said, 'I want you to cut me off'."

Monica blinked. She put a hand to her throbbing head.

"Blairy, mother doesn't feel very well this morning. Now is not the time for jokes."

"I'm not joking, mother. I want you to cut me off."

"But that's ridiculous!"

"I don't see why. You threatened to do it. I'm calling your bluff."

"Ah! I see." Monica smiled grimly. "You don't think we'd actually do it."

"I know you would," said Blair. "And I want you to."

"You don't know what you're talking about, silly girl. Do you understand what that would mean? No Langley, for a start, although your grades haven't been what they could be this semester anyway. None of our houses or apartments would be open to you. No money at all beyond the allowance from Grandfather's trust. No Cook. No James. No limos. No Eduardo. No Texas ranch. No charge accounts at all – and that includes Bloomies."

Blair swallowed hard. That was a particularly bitter pill for her, and Monica knew it. Beloved Bloomies … but it had to be done. Blair set her jaw defiantly.

"I realize all that," she said.

"You wouldn't last a week," laughed Monica. "No – you wouldn't last a day!"

"I only have to last until I'm twenty-one," Blair said calmly. "And I know I can do that, with Jo's help."

"Jo's help," scoffed Monica. "What kind of help can she be? And do you think your friends will help you, Blair? Good God, you're still so naïve! Why do you think they are your friends? You're the golden girl. How many friends do you think you're going to have when the golden goose stops laying eggs?"

"Well, now, I'm confused," Blair said thoughtfully. "Am I a golden girl or a golden goose?"

"Both," Monica snapped, frustrated. "Blair Warner, stop playing around. This simply isn't amusing."

Blair stood up. She picked up Monica's empty cup and saucer.

"James is here," she said. "I took the liberty of having your bags placed in the limo. James will drive you home whenever you feel up to it."

"Blair Warner, how dare you! Are you kicking me out?"

"Yes, mother. I'm kicking you out. I had a lot of time to think last night. And it came to me that something Rose realized in an evening, well, you have to have realized it after nineteen years."

"What are you babbling about?" Monica asked nervously.

"You must have noticed it, over the years. I always thought you were just incredibly narcissistic, but there was more to it than that, the way you shunted me off to boarding schools and camps, spent as little time with me as possible. And when you did see me, it was always talk-talk-talk about boys, boys, boys and men, men, men. As if you were, like you were –"

"Trying to help you?" asked Monica. "For Christ's sake, Blair, I'm not having this conversation with you. You could be normal, I know you could, if you'd just try."

"You've always known," said Blair. "And you couldn't take it. So you just sent me away, again and again."

"And every time you came back just the same!" said Monica. "Do you have any idea how that broke my heart?"

Blair smiled sadly. She tilted her head. "Yes," she said. "Every time I saw you again, you were just the same. Including now."

Monica took a deep breath. Shouting at Blair wasn't going to help. It hadn't done anything but make an ugly scene even uglier the night before.

"Blair, dear, you know mother loves you."

"I believe you do," said Blair, "in your fashion."

"I had a cousin like you," Monica said intently, "and an uncle, but you've never met them because she swallowed a handful of sleeping pills her second semester at Radcliffe, and he's dying of syphilis in the south of France. Do you understand? It's never a pretty end."

Blair thought of Alec's great-aunt Vivienne, living in Italy for more than fifty years so that she could love the way she wanted to. Exile and death … is that all Jo and I have to look forward to?

She refused to believe it.

"Mother, in your own way you might think that you're protecting me –"

"It's the world's way, Blair. You're too old now, to hush things up like we did with that Mimi girl in Texas."

"So you did know –"

"Of course I knew! I always knew."

"But you never … talked to me about it."

"There was nothing to say! Blair, you can't live that live. You're in the public eye, and the limelight will only get brighter when you take your place in society. How long do you think it will be before people start noticing that you never go anywhere without Jo Polniaczek? I've done all the damage control I can do. I've told everyone she's a talented little protégé of yours, a project. But how much longer can that smoke screen last?"

"I love her, mother."

"Don't say that!"

"I love her. That isn't going to change."

"You think that now. Well, you'll see, dear! You'll see."

"Yes. I suppose I will." Blair leaned down impulsively and kissed her mother's pale cheek. "Please, mother, you'll make sure that I'm cut off? Soon. I don't want anything more from you. Not until you can love me for who I am."

"Blair! You come back here!"

But the door of the Grey Room closed quietly behind the heiress, and Blair did not return …

"You're not to answer any calls from Miss Blair," Monica shouted into the intercom as James drove her back to Manhattan.

"As you wish, Mrs. Warner," James' voice crackled from the speaker.

"Or her friends," Monica added. "Especially not her friends!"

"As you wish."

Monica snapped open her compact. She had fled the house without showering or putting on her makeup, without doing anything other than pulling on her Yves St. Laurent ensemble from the previous evening and rescuing her black sable mink from the foyer coat closet.

Her face looked alien to her without any makeup. It startled her, how young she looked … how unspoilt.

She dabbed foundation all over her face, almost viciously. She dabbed rouge on her cheeks.

She hit the intercom button. "James, drive slowly. And don't hit any potholes. I'm painting my mouth."

"As you wish, Mrs. Warner."

She uncapped her lipstick.


Friday afternoon, November 25, 1983.

Jo found Blair walking on the bluff.

"Don't jump off," said Jo.

"You either," said Blair.

"No worries about that," said Jo, smiling.

"'You've got to live the life you choose,'" quoted Blair, "'so choose a life you can live with'."

"That's about the size of it. Whaddya know, babe … we're basin our lives on a fortune cookie!"

Blair laughed. She was wearing Jo's soft brown aviator jacket, her hand stuffed deep in the pockets, the fleece collar pulled up over her ears and chin.

"Thought that was maybe where my jacket went," Jo smiled. She wore her sturdy old pea coat, Blair's expensive scarf flapping around her neck.

"I should have asked," said Blair. "Just … sometimes I wear it when you're not around. It makes me think of you."

"You don't have to ask," said Jo. "If it's mine, it's yours, babe."

"And vice-versa, Jo. Though, I'm about to have a lot less to give you."

"Good." Jo took Blair into her arms. "Just need you, Blondie."

"Right back at you, Polniaczek."

Arms wrapped around each other, they strolled along the bluff. It was foggy and spitting rain. Their breath poured out in milky clouds. They paused at one of their favorite outlooks, gazed down at the leaden river, the crystalline branches along the shore.

"Damn this is beautiful," said Jo. She pulled Blair closer. "You warm enough, babe?"

"Hey, I'm the one in the fleece. And I'm the one with the extra padding."

Jo squeezed Blair through the jacket. "Are you kiddin?" she teased. "You only lost your money for, what, a couple hours? And you're already getting all scraggly and bony. You need some cannoli! I shoulda brought some back from the city last night!"

Blair struggled, laughing, as Jo tickled her through the leather and fleece.

"You are the most ticklish person I know," laughed Jo.

Blair hugged Jo, kissed her. "Your lips are cold," she said.

"Your nose is frozen," said Jo. "We should go in. We still have, what, like fifteen people to entertain?"

"Say that again, Jo."

"We should go in."

"No. About the fifteen friends and family. It helps, thinking how many people love us for who we are."

"Boots isn't really either," said Jo, making a face. "Neither friend nor family member, neither fish nor friggin fowl."

"I think she's like me," said Blair. "It's not easy, to be like me. I'm going to talk to her later."

"By which you mean talk to her, right? Not get into a hair-pullin, shin-kickin debutante smack-down. You promise?"

"I promise nothing," said Blair. "Boots has a serious crush on you, and she's going to have to get over that."

"Easier said than done," Jo deadpanned.

"You're awfully full of yourself, Miss Polniaczek."

"Well, I do got beautiful socialites fallin at my feet every other day. That'll give a girl a swelled head."

Blair scooped up a handful of snow, flung it at Jo. The wind caught it and blew it back into Blair's face.

Jo laughed. She swept Blair into her arms, staggering a little bit under the weight of Blair and the heavy aviator's jacket and Blair's layers of clothing.

"Don't drop me," laughed Blair.

"Serve you right if I did, Princess. I'm gonna drop you in a snow bank!"

"No! Jo! Don't!" Giggling, Blair pounded her gloved fists against Jo's shoulders …


"Look at them," Mrs. Garrett said, peering through the kitchen window. "They're so perfect together. I can't believe I didn't see it years ago."

"Agreed," said Natalie, stirring a bowl of eggs and butter and flour. "They're an adorable couple. Almost as adorable as Belmont and me."

Mrs. Garrett looked again at the scrap of paper in her hand.

Drake had made a call to some "suits" who, apparently, even worked on the day after Thanksgiving.

They had given Drake a figure. "It's not much," Drake told Mrs. Garrett apologetically, "but you are a novice, and it is only the New York morning market. Depending on how popular you are, and whether 'Edna's Edibles' is ever picked up nationally, this'll be a lot more someday."

Mrs. Garrett had looked idly at the figure … and almost fainted. Drake had caught her elbow and steadied her. "I know it's not much," he said, "but it's not that bad."

"No," Mrs. Garrett had agreed breathlessly. "It's not. It's not that bad at all!"

She wished that Mr. Parker, the penny-pinching Eastland headmaster who'd worked her to the bone, could see the figure that the "suits" were offering her …

"Earth to Mrs. Garrett," said Natalie. "What do I do next?"

"Did you add the salt?" asked Mrs. Garrett.

"Sure – five minutes ago. I just finished mixing everything together."

"Sorry, Natalie. I'm a little preoccupied. Some decisions that I need to make."

"Please tell me you're not going to move out!" said Natalie. "It was terrible when you left Eastland! You can't leave us again."

"Who's leaving?" asked Tootie breezing into the kitchen. "Do we have any more yams? I think my mother's addicted to them."

"Mrs. Garrett's leaving," said Natalie.

"I'm not leaving!" Mrs. Garrett insisted.

"You'd better not!" said Tootie. "We need you! We love you! And you're the sanest person in this house!"

"Not that that's saying much," observed Natalie.

"Far from leaving," said Mrs. Garrett, "I'm thinking of taking over the lease from Blair and Jo."

"You're kidding!"

"Not at all. I think it's been more of a financial strain on them than they've admitted – especially Blair. And now that, well …"

"Now that they've been disowned," said Natalie. "You can say it. You don't think the Snoop Sisters missed that one, do you?"

"I like the idea of you being our landlady," said Tootie. "It makes sense. You are the oldest one in the house. That is, you're the most mature," she amended hastily.

"And you can make Blair wear pants around the house," said Natalie. "So, OK, it's decided – Mrs. Garrett is ruling the roost. But back to my cake – what do I do next? When do I add the pineapple?"

"What are you making?" Tootie asked curiously.

"I told Belmont I knew how to make a pineapple upside down cake."

"And he believed you?"

"Hey, it's early in the courtship. He doesn't know what a lousy cook I am – and I don't plan for him to find out until we're married. Pineapple upside down cake is his favorite."

"Is he, like, a time traveler from the 1950's?"

"Don't knock Belmont's favorite cake," Natalie said. "I think it's quaint. And cute."

"And a little weird," murmured Tootie.

"I heard that, Dorothy!"

"I'm entitled to my opinions, Natalie!"

"Not when they involve my boyfriend!"

Mrs. Garrett smiled. She peered out the window again. Blair and Jo were chasing each other along the bluff, laughing and trying to peg each other with snowballs. Mrs. Garrett smiled indulgently.

Some things change, thought Mrs. Garrett, and some things take me right back to Eastland, when the girls were young …


Jo was right on the edge of sleep when Blair kissed her.

"Darling? Are you awake?"

"Mmn?" Jo opened her eyes.

They were bundled under the blankets in their bedroom. A cold, late-November rain pattered on the roof. Jo burrowed deeper under the covers, wrapped her arms around Blair's waist. She's so damn warm … like a furnace. How could it get any better? Holding Blair and listening to the rain …

"Darling, do you realize we're the only ones who never said what we were thankful for?"

"Oh. Yeah." Jo nuzzled Blair's shoulder. "Mine's pretty simple this year."

"Mine too."

"You wanna go first?" asked Jo.

"You," said Blair. "That's what I'm most thankful for this year. You."

"Well, not to be totally freakin unoriginal, but my Thanksgivin 'thanks' is you, babe. What am I most thankful for this year? You."

"I love you, Jo," whispered Blair.

"Love you forever and back," said Jo.

The End

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